Children’s use of electronic games – What are the social and academic benefits and negatives?

| October 6, 2016

Digital devices and electronic games have become a part of everyday life for children. Early Childhood Education expert Sue Walker has conducted research into what effect this has on the later development of young children.

Technology is ubiquitous in our lives today and indeed, in the lives of young children. With the relatively recent shift to mobile devices, children are engaging with digital devices even more frequently because mobile devices are more portable, more affordable and more accessible. Along with the use of digital technologies more generally, we have also seen an increase in children’s use of electronic games. In fact digital devices and electronic games have become so much a part of everyday life for children that the question is no longer whether children should access digital worlds, but how we might best support them in their use.

An often asked question is how much is too much? What effect does engaging with electronic games have on young children’s development? Recent national health guidelines recommend no screen time for children aged two years and younger, and no more than two hours per day of screen time for children aged two years and older. However, screen time incorporates all types of technology including television watching which might have very different developmental consequences to actively engaging with electronic games.

In our research we explored young children’s use of electronic games and associations with later development. We were particularly interested in children’s ability to regulate their attention and stay on task (aspects of self-regulation), early maths and literacy achievement and emotional development. We used data from Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children; a large, national longitudinal study which has been tracking children since 2004.

We looked at the amount of time parents reported that their children used electronic games each week when they were eight years old and how this might predict teacher reports of children’s development two years later in primary school. What we found was that, despite media concerns, more than half of Australian children used electronic games for less than one hour a day and that this moderate use of electronic games was actually associated with better literacy and mathematical skills. This was the case even after taking family background and SES into account.

On the other hand, high use of electronic games for more than one hour a day was associated with poorer self-regulation and less positive emotional development. So it seems that low to moderate use of electronic games in childhood can have positive effects for children’s later academic achievement but that overuse may have an impact on children’s attention span, ability to stay on task and emotional development.

What we were not able to investigate was the quality of the electronic games played by the children. Clearly this would be an important factor for children’s development, and it is likely that the relationship between the use of electronic games and child outcomes is far from straightforward.


One Comment

  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    February 6, 2017 at 3:45 am

    Screen based useage

    I am not familiar with the quoted data source. However, as a parent I would question data supplied by parents regarding time spent by their children on screen-based equipment. Kids use their pads, etc in the bedroom, on public transport, at their friends homes, school, out with friends, etc. Whilst being sure in my own mind that we have so much information at our disposal that the ability to manipulate it logically is decreasing, I wonder if this is necessarily a bad thing. If we retain the ability to process what we have in such a way as to achieve an acceptable correct outcome does it really matter how we get there. I read recently that Socrates complained bitterly that reading and writing would deplete people's ability to think for themselves. Maybe it has, but we are no worse off for that.