Children who move more and look at screens less have better executive functioning
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Children who move more and look at screens less have better executive functioning

by Freya Lucas

October 04, 2022

A new study has explored the link between movement, screentime and executive functioning in toddlers, finding that those who used screens for an hour or less each day, and had higher levels of movement had stronger executive functioning skills.


Executive functioning is a suite of skills which refers to children’s capacity to remember, plan, pay attention, shift between tasks and regulate their own thoughts and behaviour. 


Reported in The Journal of Pediatrics, the study found that 24-month-old children who spent less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day and those who engaged in daily physical activity had better executive function than those who didn’t meet the guidelines.


“Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviours,” lead author Naiman Khan explained. 


 “It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behaviour; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.”


Current US AAP guidelines for toddler age children recommend that children spend less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day, engage in daily physical activity, consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables and minimise or eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.


“We wanted to test the hypothesis that healthy weight status and adherence to the AAP guidelines for diet and physical activity would extend to greater executive function in 24-month-old children,” fellow author Arden McMath explained.


 and food science and human nutrition professor Sharon Donovan.


Previous studies have linked adherence to guidelines for physical activity levels, screen time and diet quality with executive function in school-aged or adolescent children, but authors wanted to focus on an earlier period in child development to see whether and how early in life these relationships begin. 


More than 350 families were involved in the research which used data from the STRONG KIDS 2 cohort study. The study uses parental surveys and data on the children collected at eight time points over the first five years of a child’s life, including when the children are 24 months old.


“The surveys asked parents to report on several aspects of their child’s daily habits, including how much time they looked at screens, how physically active they were, whether they had at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and whether they refrained from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages,” Ms McMath said.


The parents also responded to a standard survey designed to measure executive function in toddlers. These questions asked them to evaluate their child’s ability to plan and organise their thoughts, regulate their emotional responses, inhibit impulses, remember information and shift attention between tasks.


The team used a structural equation modeling technique to assess the direct and indirect relationships between adherence to the AAP guidelines and executive function in the toddlers.


“We found that toddlers who engaged in less than 60 minutes of screen time per day had significantly greater ability to actively control their own cognition than those who spent more time staring at phones, tablets, televisions and computers,” Ms McMath said. “They had greater inhibitory control, working memory and overall executive function.”


Toddlers who got daily physical activity also did significantly better on tests of working memory than those who didn’t, the researchers found.


While the study found no significant relationship between the children’s weight status and executive function, it suggested that “associations between health behaviors and executive function may precede observed relationships between executive function and weight status” in older children, the authors wrote.


The paper “Adherence to screen time and physical activity guidelines is associated with executive function in U.S. toddlers participating in the STRONG Kids 2 birth cohort study” is available online.

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