How Some Digital Media May Actually Help Children Learn to Focus

000016558273XSmall-283x424Teachers are quite worried that digital media are harming children’s learning, according to two 2012 studies on teachers’ views on digital media—one by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the other by Common Sense Media. Matt Richtel of the New York Times summarizes their concerns:

There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.

Not too long ago, there may have been little outcry about children’s ability to focus or to persevere, but that has changed with the increasing awareness that these ”executive function” skills are essential to children’s ability to thrive now and in the future.

For the past few decades, efforts to improve school readiness and school success have been aimed at ensuring that children learned content—first literacy, then numeracy, and now STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)—but that view is increasingly seen as too narrow in promoting school readiness and school and life success. Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child calls for teaching content and executive function skills because both are necessary:

In practice, these skills support the process (i.e., the how) of learning— focusing, remembering, planning—that enable children to effectively and efficiently master the content.

These skills are also linked to college graduation rates. Megan McClelland of Oregon State University and her colleagues found that “attention-span persistence” (one aspect of executive function) was strongly predictive of whether these same children graduated from college by age 25

Just what are executive function skills?  Neuroscience has found that they are headquartered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other areas of the brain working in concert with the prefrontal cortex  They include:

  • Focus—being able to pay attention;
  • Working memory—being able to keep information in mind in order to use it;
  • Cognitive flexibility—being able to adjust to shifting needs and demands; and
  • Inhibitory control—being able to resist the temptation to go on automatic and do what we need to do to achieve our goals.

As children grow older, these skills include reflecting, analyzing, planning, and evaluating. Executive function skills are always goal-driven.

In my now 11-year review of the research on learning for “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs,” I have found that these essential life skills are all based on executive functions of the brain. So it is no wonder that teachers are quite worried about children’s use of digital media.

[W]ell-designed video games and other digital media, if used appropriately, can actually improve some executive function skills.

Digital media don’t have to be a source of worry, because well-designed video games and other digital media, if used appropriately, can actually improve some executive function skills.  The work of Michael Posner of the University of Oregon, one of the foremost neuroscientists studying this area, is illustrative. He and his colleagues gave four-year-olds and six-year-olds five days of training in attention skills using computer games and compared them with similar groups of children with no training. The results? Even with such a brief training, the children had less trouble with “effortful” or inhibitory control. Researchers also found that when children’s ability to pay attention improved, their reasoning and thinking skills also improved.

What exactly were these computer games? One game involves keeping a cartoon cat away from mud. Posner says:

[The children] have to really control the cat very carefully to get it on the grass and not the mud. Of course, no one likes getting [into] the mud. The kids really get into this.

When the children move the joystick to the left, the cat moves left; when they move the joystick to the right, the cat moves right. The children then have to learn to move the cat forward and backward—tasks designed to be more difficult. This game involves learning how to focus on the task, remembering the rules for moving the cartoon character, and continuing to respond to the changing situation.

To develop the skills of anticipating and orienting, Posner and his team use a third computer game. In the easier version, the children are given the task of moving the cartoon cat to find a duck in a pond. The game then becomes more difficult when making the duck swim underwater and anticipating where the duck might emerge.

There is good reason to share the concern of teachers about the impact of children’s digital media use on executive function skills, but there is reason for potential optimism too. The work of Michael Posner and others show that although most of these skills develop in real-life active interaction between children and adults, it is also possible to develop digital media that enhance these skills. And that’s why I am so very enthusiastic about being on the Advisory Council to the Fred Rogers Center as they work to promote quality in young children’s media.

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