Digital learning: Excessive screen time poses cognitive risks for students

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Growing screen time poses a threat to cognitive abilities, study warns.

NEW YORK, Nov 20, (Agencies): Screens have seamlessly integrated into our daily routines, serving as essential tools for work, education, and leisure. Despite their myriad benefits, the potential impact of screen time on cognitive abilities is often overlooked.

In a recent meta-analysis of numerous studies, a distinct connection between disordered screen use and lower cognitive functioning has been established. The findings caution against advocating for increased screen time without considering potential cognitive consequences.

A 2020 report from the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education highlighted that 84 percent of Australian educators find digital technologies distracting in a learning environment. A recent Beyond Blue survey identified excessive screen time as the second-most significant challenge for young people, following mental health issues.

Despite concerns, over half of Australian schools have embraced a “bring your own device” policy, contributing to increased online activity among students. A 2021 report estimated tweens spend an average of 5 hours and 33 minutes using screen-based entertainment each day, while teenagers devote a substantial 8 hours and 39 minutes.

The rise in screen use has resulted in individuals, including children, adolescents, and adults, developing screen-related addictions, such as gaming disorder affecting 2–3 percent of the population. The impact of screens on cognitive abilities, including attention, memory, language, and problem-solving, has sparked significant debate.

While some researchers highlight negative effects like health problems, shortened attention spans, and hindered development, schools are increasingly adopting technology to enhance student engagement. Tech companies also market their products as tools to improve problem-solving and memory skills.

A recent study delved into the cognitive consequences of “disordered screen-related behaviors,” analyzing 34 studies covering various forms of screen use. The results are concerning, revealing consistently poorer cognitive performance in individuals with disordered screen use, particularly in sustained attention and executive functioning.

The type of screen activity didn’t influence the results, and the trend wasn’t confined to children but observed across all age groups. The study explores why individuals with disordered screen-related behaviors exhibit poorer cognitive functioning.

One explanation suggests that disordered screen use leads to poorer cognitive function, including attention skills, but further experimental and longitudinal studies are needed. Constant exposure to attention-capturing algorithms may divert focus outward, weakening intrinsic concentration abilities. Impaired attention makes it challenging to disengage from addictive behaviors, complicating the recognition of problematic screen use.

Another explanation proposes that people with pre-existing poorer cognitive functioning are more likely to engage in disordered screen use due to addictive cues. The literature leans towards cognitive functioning impairment resulting from disordered screen use, though the relationship is complex.

Attention, crucial for everyday tasks, becomes challenging for those with weakened attention, leading them to turn to screens in less stimulating environments. Individuals with less inhibitory control find it difficult to moderate screen use, contributing to problematic screen-related behaviors.

Research indicates that individuals with impaired cognitive functioning struggle to self-regulate screen time. Users with disordered screen use, often young, exhibit gender-based patterns, with males engaging in internet gaming and females in social media use. Neurodiverse individuals face an increased risk.

Tech companies, driven by the goal of capturing attention, contribute to the prevalence of screen use. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings acknowledges sleep as a formidable competitor. As technological innovation advances, researchers face challenges in keeping up. Encouraging open-access data policies from tech companies could facilitate in-depth studies on the effects of screen use on individuals.

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