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04.05.2020 12:36

Smartphone, tablet, television - screen media influence children's mental imagery

Christina Glaser Referat II/2 - Media Relations & Communications
Universität Regensburg

    Educationalists find a negative influence of home screen-media use on an important component for thought and action.

    Imagine a flowery meadow on a sunny day, with different shades of radiant green, interspersed with blue, purple, yellow, white and red spots of colour. Butterflies flutter and frolic, birds chirp a cheery tune, and scents waft through the air... Being able to “see” the scene described with the mind’s “inner eye” is down to our ability to create mental images. Two educationalists from the University of Regensburg in Germany, Dr. Sebastian Suggate and Dr. Philipp Martzog, investigated the connection between mental imagery in children and their screen-media usage at home.

    The researchers found that more frequent use of screen media, such as TV, tablets or smartphones, was associated with poorer mental imagery. The results of the study have been published in Developmental Science.

    Mental imagery enables us to depict events or objects as if they were in front of an "inner eye". This becomes clear when reading. For example, if you read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you may be able to vividly perceive the mountains of Archenland and the city of Tashban even though these places do not exist! It can be assumed that the ability to create such inner images is based on actual experiences across a range of sensory modalities, alongside experiences with the objects contained in the mental images themselves. These imagination and mental imagery abilities of both children and adults are an important component of cognitive development, including thinking, problem solving, language, and imagination.

    When we look at a screen, it takes a lot of work off our shoulders by creating the mental images for us. Also, screens provide almost exclusively visual and auditory experiences, possibly to the detriment of other senses. When watching movies, for example, the images conveyed via the screen are ready-made and presented to the viewer. The independent creation or addition of images, as is required when listening to or reading a language, is no longer necessary.

    Bearing this in mind, the researchers investigated whether mental imagery develops more slowly in childhood. This question has particular relevance as children are increasingly exposed to screen-media, at both home and school. The scientists tested the hypothesis that children with more screen-time, and hence likely have less practice in creating their own images, consequently develop lower mental imagery skills.

    The study involved 266 kindergarten and primary school children between the ages of three and nine. The researchers found that the longer the daily use of screen media, the slower that mental imagery skill developed across the course of the study. This finding applied not only to passive screen use, that is television, but also to so-called active media, such as smartphones, tablets or PCs.

    The scientists therefore recommend a careful use of screen-media and more compensatory activity. For example, it may be possible to better program apps that better support mental image creation. In general, however, screen media cannot replace activities that require and stimulate mental imagery, such as spoken language, reading loud, physical and imaginative play. In addition, children should be given sufficient opportunity to be active and creative in the three-dimensional world.

    The project was supported by the Software AG Foundation.

    Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

    PD Dr. Sebastian Suggate
    Department of Educational Science
    University of Regensburg
    Phone: +49 941 943-3643

    Dr. Philipp Martzog
    Department of Educational Science
    University of Regensburg
    Phone: +49 941 943-1774



    Suggate, S. P., & Martzog, P. (2020). Screen-time influences children's mental imagery performance, Developmental Science. DOI: 10,1111/desc.12978


    Kinder vom Bildschirm eingenommen - Was läuft im Geist ab?
    Kinder vom Bildschirm eingenommen - Was läuft im Geist ab?
    © Philipp Martzog - Photos for exclusive use in the context of reporting from this press release.

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    Kinder vom Bildschirm eingenommen - Was läuft im Geist ab?

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