The negative effects of digital technology on cognition #2 (with key studies): TV, attention and working memory

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Key Studies

Kids have more access than ever to TV, including on phones and tablets. But what are the possible consequences of this?

Technology’s Negative Effects on Memory

Numerous studies have investigated the effects of watching television on working memory and executive functions because kids in developed countries tend to watch a lot of television. Watching TV for long periods of time might be harmful for cognition because it doesn’t require us to use our working memory, unlike other activities like reading, doing a puzzle or playing an instrument.

As with anything, spending hours watching TV could have an effect on the brain. Interestingly, research in Japan has shown a negative correlation between TV watching and grey matter in the prefrontal cortex (Takeuchi et al., 2013). Perhaps this could also explain why studies have found correlations between watching too much TV and having attention and working memory problems (because the PFC plays an important role in executive functions, attention and working memory).

Key Study #1: Longitudinal study of TV watching and attention problems (Christakis et al. (2004)

This longitudinal study was conducted on over 1,000 American children with the aim of seeing if watching TV as a young child (ages one and three) would increase the chances of having attentional problems when they got older (at age seven). After conducting their correlational analyses, the results showed that the main predictor for attentional problems at age seven, was hours spent watching TV at ages one and three. One finding from the study was that for every hour on average they watched at age three, they were 10% more likely to have attentional problems at age seven.

boy standing in front of flat screen tv

The amount of television children watch before the age of three could have a significant effect on their ability to focus and maintain attention later in life. However, this is only a correlation and their could be other explanations for this link. (Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. on

Types of TV and Attention

But could the effect of TV on attention depend on the type of TV we watch? If we’re watching educational documentaries or foreign films that require careful concentration, maybe these could be beneficial. However, watching TV that has lots of quick-cuts and things happening so quickly that we don’t really have to think very carefully about what we’re watching, could have negative effects. Studies have shown that it’s not necessarily watching TV that’s bad, but it’s the type of TV.

Different types of TV and working memory (Lillard and Peterson (2011)

In this study, the researchers randomly allocated 60 four year old kids to one of three conditions. In the fast-paced TV condition the kids watched SpongeBob Square Pants (which has an average scene length of 11 seconds). The slow-paced TV condition watched another cartoon, Caillou (an average scene length of 34 seconds). A third group watched no TV and did drawing activities instead. The kids watched TV (or drew) for nine minutes before completing a range of tests on their working memory, including a digital span task. The results showed that the kids who watched nine minutes of SpongeBob (fast paced) scored significantly less on the digit-span and other tests of executive function than the group in the drawing and slow-paced TV conditions. It seems that it’s not just about how much TV a child watches, but the type of TV could have different effects, too.

adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees

Perhaps not all TV is bad – if kids are watching something with long, slow cuts like a nature documentary then it might not have any negative effect, and could actually have benefits (Photo by Pixabay on


Exam Tips:

  • You may be asked specifically about positive effects or negative effects in an essay question. If the question is general and just asks to discuss the effects, you can write about positive and negative effects.
  • Sparrow et al.’s study could also be used in support of the multi-store model – participants are not rehearsing the information if they think it’s being saved so the memory is not transferring from the STM to the LTM.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • Christakis et al.’s study is correlational. One conclusion could be that the watching TV increases attention problems, but could bidirectional ambiguity be an issue with this study? How could the results be explained in the other direction?
  • In Lillard and Peterson’s study the kids did the working memory tasks immediately after watching TV. What is one limitation in using these results to explain why watching TV at home might affect attention at school?
  • Could there be positive effects of the use of technology on cognitive processes? (Read more here…)

You might be wondering why I don’t explain limitations of studies. It’s simple really – then it wouldn’t be critical thinking for students, it would be regurgitation. If all students make the same points in essays because that’s what they read on blogs or in textbooks, they score less marks because examiner’s know it’s not their critical thinking. I provide probing questions so students can come up with their own points and develop their own critical thinking skills.


From the above studies we can see that relying on digital technology to process and store information could have a negative effect on how well we retain that information.

  • Christakis, D. A., F. J. Zimmerman, D. L. Digiuseppe, and C. A. Mccarty. “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children.” Pediatrics 113.4 (2004): 708-13.
  • Lillard, A. S., and J. Peterson. “The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function.” Pediatrics 128.4 (2011): 644-49.

The material in this post has been adapted from our textbook and our exam revision book: IB Psychology: A Revision Guide (available here). This is relevant for the working memory model and also for the HL extension: the (negative) effects of technology on cognitive processes and the reliability of cognitive processes. In this post we look at the negative effects of computer games and other technology on the reliability of working memory and its capacity. (You can read more in our first post about negative effects of tech on memory here, and positive effects here)