The internet can a powerful part of children’s learning, but are digital distractions undermining GCSE results? Richard Newson, considers the impact of screen time.
Most parents observe the ease and eagerness with which their children engage with laptops, games consoles and mobile phones with considerable misgivings.
Online grooming, sexting and cyberbullying plague the online world – and children are vulnerable.
But alongside these worries is a more general concern that the distractions of digital devices are undermining their child’s education. But are these worries grounded in fact?
Research by the National Children’s Bureau in Northern Ireland looked at precisely this question. It explored how a cohort of 14 to 16 year olds were using ICT (that’s Information Communication Technology for anyone born in the previous millennium) and how this related to their GCSE exam results.
The findings are surprising.
For a start, while excessive gaming is closely linked with poor exam results, the research showed no link between intensive use of social networking platforms and poor performance in GCSEs.
And let’s be clear – we are talking about using a games console or portable games player at least a couple of times per day. Only 41% of pupils who followed this pattern achieved five good GCSE grades, compared to 77% of those who played games rarely.
Why this discrepancy between gaming and social networking should occur is beyond the scope of this study but it does indicate parents should be concerned about the extent of gaming. Particularly considering that other studies indicate that low levels of gaming (less than one hour per day) can actually have a positive impact on young people’s academic engagement compared to those to those who do not play at all.
But while gaming is an issue, it is important that all young people are encouraged to use their computer time, at least in part, to do homework.
The NCB research found that four in 10 young people are online for over four hours per day in their GCSE year. But that much of this time is spent on recreational activities. 43% of young people spend less than an hour each day using a computer for homework.
Unsurprisingly, those pupils spending around three hours every day using a computer to do homework achieved the best exam results, with 79% achieving five A* to C grades in their GCSEs.
Given this, teachers have a role in setting their pupils homework that require the use of computer. And parents should be vigilant that their child establishes good online habits (including being aware of e-safety) and that homework is done, rather than idle surfing.
Finally, we should not forget the 5% of 14 to 16 year olds who have no computer access whatsoever at home. These children fare considerably worse in education than their peers and need the targeted support of policymakers if they are to avoid being left behind in the digital age.
‘ICT and Me’ is available as both a report and a video for young people here