National Report Calls for More Focused Studies of Digital Apps and Games to Enhance Pre-teen Learning and Development

young girl uses ipad in classroom

UMass Amherst developmental psychologists contribute to major lit review

A team of developmental and cognitive psychologists and learning experts this month published a report on digital game play and app use among 6 to 12-year-olds–specifically, what is known and not known about impacts on cognitive development and learning. They recommend target research areas to maximize child educational outcomes, best practices in schools, and policies for developing effective educational games and apps for this group of under-studied youth.

Kirby Deater-Deckard and David Arnold of the University of Massachusetts Amherst are part of the international team led by Fran Blumberg at Fordham University, that reviewed the literature and compiled evidence for the Washington, D.C.-based Society for Research in Child Development’s (SRCD) policy report. It concludes with a discussion of policies that the authors believe can help children benefit from their digital media use.

The expert panel notes that “research-based guidance on what constitutes an educational app is needed. The designation of an app as ‘educational’ is largely unregulated and unmonitored, and is rarely based on research.”

Arnold says, “Even those in the poorest communities now have access to mobile devices, and this technology has potential to help address educational inequities. But we need to know much more about how to help families use this technology constructively.” Deater-Deckard adds, “The ubiquitous availability of these technologies provide new opportunities for conducting rigorous research, not only on the effects of digital games but on basic questions regarding cognitive and social-emotional development.”   

The team says developmental psychologists can contribute to policies on digital games and apps by using their special knowledge of cognitive learning milestones for this age group. They urge taking a “big picture” approach to inform policy and practice by evaluating research in key areas to “close the gap between research and the design of efficacious games for learning and the promotion of cognitive development.”

These key areas include media literacy, transfer of learning – using prior experience from one context to apply to another – and investigating how children best learn from digital media, for example. The authors also urge researchers to learn from an industry organization that provides content and age-appropriate ratings for video games and apps. The experts urge fellow researchers to study policies that might help structure media use during childhood and to make use of game analytics.

The authors suggest that from the limited research on digital media in middle childhood, it is known that “playing educationally oriented digital games is linked to enhanced executive functions, mental rotation skills, basic math understanding and problem-solving ability.” Further, “such games may enhance selective attention and other abilities used to acquire academic content,” and games that require physical activity may enhance executive functions.

But the authors point out that despite their widespread use, “there is very little research on beneficial or harmful aspects of video games for school-age children’s cognition or learning.” They note that one recent media survey found that children ages 8-12 interacted with games on mobile devices on average of one hour, 19 minutes per day, similar to rates for teens. An increasing number of schools integrate educational games and apps into curriculum, they add, though whether they have an impact is not yet clear.

Much of what is known about the impact of media on children’s development comes from decades of television research, Blumberg and colleagues note. “We know that content matters” – educational television but not violent or solely entertaining TV is positively associated with good academic outcomes. Also, “learning from media appears to be related to the emotional ties young children form with media characters.”

Overall, the expert panel recognizes that parents need research-based guidelines to understand how to support their children’s learning while using digital media, that under-resourced schools need access to digital media and high-speed Internet to integrate educational games into curricula, and that teacher training should include best practices for developmentally appropriate instruction when using digital games.

Federal agencies should fund technology, app, and game development aimed at fostering students’ academic skills, together with research on effects on cognitive development,” they add, and legislation could “inform research and policy by providing federal funding to examine impacts of digital media on children’s and adolescents’ cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and behavioral development.”

The report was preceded by a series of meetings supported with a grant from the Society for Research in Child Development.

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