Visualization & Screen Time

In my last post I laid out some Visualization Basics. I believe that there are many “roadblocks” to visualization that cause them to have challenges with reading. There are several roadblocks to visualization. Today,  I want to begin tackling some of the connections between visualization and screen time. I believe that an overabundance of screen time can have an impact on student’s reading skills.

Roadblock  to Visualization: Screen Time

Screens are a part of our world, they are a part of our learning, and they can be great educational tools. Here, I will be describing screen time as watching television or movies, playing video games, and using applications. Screen time, in this section, does not refer to engaging in meaningful reading via a digital book.

Personally, I love a good book, but I also love getting on the couch after my kids are in bed to catch up on one of my shows. However, you cannot deny that excessive screen time affects the human brain. Studies have shown that large amounts of screen time have been associated with language and cognitive delays in young children (Lin 2015). One study has shown that if children under 12 months watched more than two hours of TV a day, they were six times more likely to have language delays (Chonchaiya & Purksananonda 2008). These studies and countless others are part of why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2. Beyond that, they recommend limiting to two hours per day. (American Academy of Pediatrics 2015).

In a 2015 study, The Nielsen Group reported that 96.7 percent of Americans have a TV in their home. A report from the Census Bureau reports that approximately 96.1% of households below the poverty level own televisions (Jeffrey 2013). No matter what socio-economic background you teach in, the majority of our students are watching television in the home.

In addition to television, smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices are becoming more prevalent in our students’ lives as well. One study in Education Digest surveyed children’s media use in 2013. In 2011 8% of families surveyed owned Ipads, and by 2013 it was up to 40% (Education Digest 2013).  Almost twice as many children had use of mobile media in 2013 as compared to 2011, and the time spent on these devices has tripled (Education Digest 2013). We can safely assume these trends will continue and there will be more mobile media usage in our students’ lives.

Another interesting point is the closing gap of technology ownership between low socio-economic status families (SES) and non-SES families. The Education Digest study states that low SES smartphone ownership went from 27% to 51% from 2011 to 2013 (Education Digest 2013). The PEW Research Center’s 2015 survey showed that 64% of Americans owned a Smartphone, and moreover 85% of all Americans ages 18-29 own Smartphones (PEW 2015).  Only 27% of seniors own Smartphones (PEW 2015).  If the 18-29 age bracket continues to increase their Smartphone ownership, then soon most parents of school-age students will own these devices.

Our children’s use of screens is escalating. While there is a good deal of research on television viewing and children’s brains, there is still research to be done on children’s use of smartphones and applications (Radesky 2015). One thing we know is that while some learning could be done through Smartphone applications, young children actually engaging in tactile experiences is much more beneficial than anything done on a screen (American Academy of Pediatrics 2015).

Connecting Screen Time with Visualization

Pyschologist Marina Wimmer says mental imagery is “… when we see an event, an object or a scene in the absence of the related visual input” (Wimmer 2015). Think about what happens when you read a novel,and this is true whether you’re reading with your eyes or listening to an audiobook. When reading you must visualize at a deep level to comprehend what is happening. You are not just a bystander watching something take place; rather, your brain is working to process the words and then pull images into the little movie reel you have going in your head. Watching television or a movie is a passive experience for your brain. Now, you may be so engaged in a program that you feel as if you are in it, but you don’t have to work as much when you are watching something. Watching a screen involves comprehension, but not visualization.

On the other hand, reading trains the brain to visualize, comprehend and process. Of course, reading and spending time on screens can be a healthy part of any adult or child’s lifestyle, with proper balance. But, when you watch TV, you’re being fed the images, and you’re sitting on the sidelines. Consider the effects too much of this can have on our children’s stamina for making their own visualizations.

How much on-screen/off-screen balance do our children have?

It is tricky to determine just how much time our students are spending on screens in the home. In Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, he cites many studies that have shown that children from poverty spend more time watching television than children from higher SES homes (Jensen 2009). For children in low-income homes, books and other learning materials may be limited-to-none, and parents could be less likely to engage in shared literacy experiences (Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo & Coll, 2001). We’ve already established that 96.1 % of families living below the poverty level have televisions in the home (Jeffrey 2013). A study in Pediatrics found that 41% of 24-35 month-olds watched more television than the AAP’s recommended amount (Certain & Kahn 2002). This study also cited that children of college graduates were less likely to have excessive screen time as compared with less-educated mothers (Certain & Kahn 2002). My concern is that if TVs are used excessively while books and learning materials are scarce, it could cause an imbalance in these children’s lives. Screen time becomes a major component of a student’s visualization challenges when there is no balance.

While students from poverty may be at risk for spending excessive time on screens, this issue goes beyond socio-economic status. Children across all demographics are spending large amounts of time on screens to the detriment of their cognitive abilities, and we are still determining the lasting affect this will have. Students who have had excessive screen time have had images spoon-fed to them for a long time. It can take practice, work and intervention to help them learn to create images on their own. Screen time can have negative effects on the brain’s ability to visualize.

Luckily, teachers can help students counteract the negative effects too much screen time can have on the brain’s ability to visualize mental experiences. In the coming weeks I will be posting several strategies to improve student’s visualization skills!


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