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The Effects of Electronic Media on the Cognitive, Social, & Emotional Development of Children & Adolescents

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May 15-16, 2006

Executive Summary


American children are immersed in an electronic environment, are early adapters to media technology and are susceptible to scenes of violence and advertising messages that are pervasive in the media. Children are growing up in an electronic culture and yet we do not fully understand the extent to which media exposure impacts children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. To explore this research gap, a conference was conducted in May 2006, in Rockville, Maryland, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and by the Office of Behavioral and Social Science (OBSSR) within the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The panel of experts represented diverse fields including developmental psychology, communication, pediatrics, family studies, and educational technology.

Media context, child cognition, and education

Media use and exposure, like child development, occurs in a variety of ecological systems (i.e., home, school, and community), varies with the age of the child and is influenced by the parent’s education and occupation. Media use, especially TV, is woven into the fabric of family life. The number of “educational” media programs and products targeting young children is ever increasing, but some lack a scientific foundation. A child’s perception of media is influenced by his or her level of cognitive development, by media content, and by the context in which media exposure occurs. For these reasons, media studies should be conducted within and across ecological systems, in a longitudinal manner, and in various contexts. The research base for media effects on cognitive development is meager, and both positive and negative effects are possible. Age-specific educational effectiveness has been demonstrated in some studies. Media content has been identified as critical to the learning process, although the general population is under-informed of this finding. Effective educational programs have been linked to better school performance. Unique educational effects have been identified for special populations (i.e., students with autism spectrum disorders) using media designed to address their special learning needs. In the field of mathematics, theoretical frameworks have guided the use of electronic media in classrooms and were followed by outcome studies in a national sample. Research is needed to distinguish the types of media that support learning; the effect of media exposure on imagination, creativity, empathy, and fear; how and where learning occurs; the neural nature of cognitive processing of media, and the distinction between cognitive stimulation and cognitive overload.

Attention and multitasking

There have been mixed findings on the effects of the rapid pacing of television images and media content on attention and cognition. Some research suggests that very early TV viewing is associated with negative effects on symptoms of attention deficit, while action video games were found to increase visual attention. The use of interactive media can provide a reward structure for learning, increase attention, and improve task switching. It is not as effective for verbal and visual learning as it is for physical responses and, at times, provides only limited contingency. The topic of multitasking, including definition and effects, is ripe for discussion and research. What are the effects of multitasking on accomplishing tasks, and how do the differences in processing background and foreground media influence attention and behavior? Although access to electronic media and interactive media is expanding, concern exists about a potential race-specific “digital divide.”

Media messages

Media use recommendations are issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a series of anticipatory guidelines to be delivered by pediatricians, but these messages are not necessarily based on strong scientific evidence. The messages are frequently phrased as directives, such as “limit the amount of media use for children” and “discourage parents from putting a television in their child’s bedroom.” Some conference participants suggested that pediatricians have not been successful in getting the word out about media use, and that their recommendations should set parameters and goals, while avoiding prohibitions.


Methodological approaches must keep pace with the agility and flexibility of media technology and move beyond self-report methodology. In situ media studies will help capture the salience of the media content and context and will help distinguish foreground from background media. Newer methodologies to consider include multiple measures, which can triangulate findings, momentary experience sampling, video surveys, time-use diaries, and the Portable People Meter.

Future directions

Educating parents about the effects of electronic media requires moving beyond the paradigm of media as strictly good or bad, and recognizing that cultural diversity is involved and that media can be a reflection of environmental values. Media influence should be viewed as a public health issue that requires additional research funding. Children of the 21st century are defining themselves by their media diets, and this process is accompanied by the addition of some new skills and the reduction of others. The establishment of a cohesive research field on media effects requires an objective evaluation of what is currently known and unknown. Searching the literature has been facilitated by The Center on Media and Child Health Database of Research ( External Web Site Policy), which offers free access to academics and consumers, and provides standardized abstracts and lay-language synopses. Research gaps exist in numerous areas, including: learning (especially early childhood and academic achievement), attention, imagination, health behavior (including media influence on eating and obesity), mental health conditions (anxiety and depression), and connectedness. Prospective, longitudinal studies are necessary to increase understanding of media effects and should focus on various ages and periods of child development. Some topics of research interest include the following: content, evaluation, and delivery of well-designed, educational media programs for children; biological bases of media effects on children; understanding children’s interest in entertainment media; understanding the influence of exposure to media violence; the mechanisms by which media influences outcomes; the role of interactive media and virtual reality on learning; the effects of pervasive background media and multitasking on performance; screen/media literacy; and the content and delivery of health-related media messages.

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Last Reviewed: 11/30/2012
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