Does screen time truly bear responsibility for the diminished drawing skills observed in children?

Does screen time truly bear responsibility for the diminished drawing skills observed in children?
05.01.2024

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers explored the relationship between screen viewing and drawing ability in young French children. Their findings suggest that associations between the two are not causal but rather driven by socioeconomic characteristics of the children’s households.

Background

Today, digital devices such as televisions, mobile phones, and computers are ubiquitous, and each recent generation of children is more exposed to screens than those born before them. Many researchers and parents are concerned that screen time could affect children’s cognitive development.

However, emerging research suggests that it is how screens are used that is important. Educational media, particularly when complemented by discussions with parents and other in-person social interactions, can be beneficial for developing language skills. On the other hand, media that is inappropriate for a given age has also been linked to hyperactivity and poorer social skills and executive functioning.

Psychological and cognitive development assessments of children often involve asking them to draw a human figure. This projective task is called the Draw-a-Person test. Previous studies found that pre-school-aged children and those between five and six years old who spent more time viewing screens displayed poorer drawing abilities based on their Draw-a-Person scores. However, these bivariate analyses did not control for the socioeconomic status (SES) of the children’s households, which is a strong potential confound.

Since parents’ income and educational level are negatively associated with children’s screen time, and SES with their cognitive development, including socioeconomic variables as controls could yield critical insights into this aspect of child development research.

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About the study

In this study, researchers hypothesized that the link between screen viewing and the Draw-a-Person tests can be partially or fully explained by the children’s households’ SES. This is due to the established link between higher household income and parents’ education and lower screen time and also because lower SES is associated with lower cognitive development in children. The second hypothesis that the study tested was that screen viewing could harm drawing ability since it replaces activities such as painting or other pursuits that could promote drawing skills.

To test these hypotheses, the researchers used data from a prospective birth cohort study that began in 2011 across 349 maternity hospitals in France and was representative at the country level. Newborns and their parents were included in the study if the birth was not premature, the mother was at least 18 at the time of birth, and the family did not plan to emigrate in the coming three years. Families could not participate if they did not understand and read French, Turkish, English, or Arabic.

The first round of data was collected when the child was two years old, with a follow-up survey at the age of 3.5 years. Phone questionnaires were provided to the parents during both survey rounds, with questions about how long their children spent on screen devices such as videogame consoles, tablets, computers, smartphones, and television on weekdays and weekends. From this information, researchers calculated an average daily total screen time in hours across all devices.

During the second round of data collection, the 3.5-year-old children were also asked to draw a human figure during a home visit. They were told to take as long as they needed and draw the picture to the best of their ability. They were then scored out of 12 based on whether clothing and 11 body parts such as head, torso, arms, legs, and facial features were present in their drawings. If the drawing was not recognizable as a human being, the child received a score of zero. Scores for children who drew nothing were coded as missing.

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Covariates included in the analysis included SES variables such as parental education levels, household income, whether the parents lived together, and whether one or more parents were immigrants. Researchers also included information on extracurricular activities that the child took part in and how long they slept. They also asked parents whether they engaged in activities with their child, such as drawing or reading together, to estimate levels of parental engagement. Finally, demographic controls included child sex, mother’s age at childbirth, birth rank, and gestational age at childbirth.

Researchers stratified their analysis by child sex and used zero-inflated Poisson regression models to account for the large number of drawings that received zero scores. The two main hypotheses were tested using multivariable models.

Findings

After excluding those observations for which either screen viewing or drawing scores were missing, 7,577 children were included in the final analysis. Notably, the children who were excluded had, on average, mothers with lower education and were more likely to have immigrant parents. They also spent more time on screen devices at ages 2 and 3.5 years.

Two-thirds of mothers were between 31 and 40 years old, 23% of parents had spent five or more years at university, and 4% of children had two immigrant parents. During the first round of data collection, the average screen time for each child was 0.7 hours per day, which increased to an average of 1.1 hours per day during the second round. Televisions were the most commonly used device.

In bivariate analyses, higher screen time was significantly associated with a higher probability of getting a null drawing score for boys and girls. However, for non-zero scores, there was a significant negative association between scores and screen time for girls and not boys. As the researchers expected, these associations did not remain significant when socioeconomic characteristics were included in the multivariate model. However, when children’s competing activities were included as a control, boys were still more likely to get a score of zero if they spent more time on screens.

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Conclusions

The findings indicate that, as the researchers hypothesized, socioeconomic factors such as parental engagement can mediate the relationship between screen time and drawing ability. However, competing activities are not a significant compound and can explain the association between screen time and poorer cognitive development – children spending more time on devices are spending less time on other beneficial activities. Parents’ social position should be considered when assessing whether screen time is beneficial or detrimental to children’s development.

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