Kindergartners, who spend more than a couple of hours per day watching television tend to score lower in tests of math and executive function, according to a new study by researchers at New York University’s (NYU) Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia.
Studies have shown that TV watching is linked to declines in early academic skills, but little is known about how socioeconomic status influences television viewing and child development. In the new study, the researchers looked at whether the negative relationship between watching television and school readiness varied by family income.
“Given that studies have reported that children often watch more than the recommended amount, and the current prevalence of technology such as smartphones and tablets, engaging in screen time may be more frequent now than ever before,” said lead author Andrew Ribner, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU Steinhardt.
The researchers analyzed data from 807 kindergartners of diverse backgrounds. Their parents reported family income, as well as the number of hours of television their children watch on a daily basis. Video game, tablet, and smartphone use were not included in the measurement.
Children were assessed using measures of math, knowledge of letters and words, and executive function — key cognitive and social-emotional competencies, including working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control, that are viewed as fundamental for school readiness.
The findings show that the number of hours of television young children watch is related to decreases in their school readiness, particularly their math skills and executive function. This association was strongest when children watched more than two hours of television.
As family incomes decreased, the link between television watching and drops in school readiness grew, meaning children from low-income families are more negatively affected by excess television. Those at or near the poverty line (an annual income of around $21,200 for a family of four) saw the largest drop in school readiness when children watched more than two hours of television.
A more modest drop was observed among middle-income families (measured as $74,200 per year for a family of four), while there was no link between school readiness and television viewing in high-income homes (measured as around $127,000 per year for a family of four).
Interestingly, while TV watching was negatively associated with math skills and executive function, a similar link was not found with letter and word knowledge. The researchers hypothesize that TV programming, especially educational programs for children, may help improve literacy among young children in ways that are not found in math.
While the study did not evaluate the type of content the children watched, nor the context of their television viewing, the researchers note that both may play a role in the findings, particularly in explaining why wealthier families seem to be protected from declines in school readiness linked to too much television.
Furthermore, affluent parents with more time and resources may be more likely to watch television with their children, offering explanation and discussion that can promote understanding.
“Our results suggest that the circumstances that surround child screen time can influence its detrimental effects on learning outcomes,” said Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick of Université Sainte-Anne, who is also an affiliate researcher at Concordia University and a coauthor on the study.
The findings, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, support current guidelines limiting screen time for young children. In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children over the age of two watch no more than two hours of television per day.