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Khalaf, S., Kilani, H., Razo, M. B., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2022). Bored, distracted, and confused: Emotions that promote creativity and learning in a 28-month-old child using an iPad. Journal of Intelligence, 10(4), 118.

Summary by Hechmi Kilani and Elena Grigorenko


Mind-wandering—defined as moments when attention shifts from the task at hand onto something unrelated—may provide a child with the opportunity and time to engage in creative problem-solving, giving room for creative incubation leading to an enhanced ability to learn. With the use of digital game-based learning (DGBL), this freedom to engage in mind-wandering—which, in turn, might lead to creative incubation—becomes easily accessible to any child with a tablet and educational games. The study is a case study with only one participant; thus, generalizability is limited. However, the usefulness of this study lies in its intent to bring attention to a very current issue: digital media use and screen time in young children. The participant in this study was a 28-month-old child who was introduced to a digital tablet for the first time, in the form of an iPad. Ultimately, the goal of this study was to unveil how DGBL may facilitate learning by delving into the behaviors and emotions displayed by the toddler and observing the process of digital literacy acquisition—an important skill in the 21st century.

Background Information

When discussing DGBL, it is important to contextualize it and take into consideration the body of literature that has explored screen-use in children under the age of 5. We specifically considered positive and negative outcomes associated with screen-use and DGBL when using interactive and educational applications.

First, we note that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to limit screen time to 1 hour per day for children between the ages of 2 and 5. The screen time must consist of high-quality, educational programming, and must be consumed in the presence of a caregiver. These are the guidelines to follow, although we acknowledge that in today’s age, it is difficult to do so. Put in the context of the past couple of years, global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic stress the need for a form of digital-based education. Thus, we must look at literature informing us of the negative and positive outcomes associated with screen use to be able to make informed decisions and evidence-based recommendations in this ever-changing global environment.

It is known that touchscreen devices can be effective educational tools for children who are 24 months or older. Their use can increase creativity, self-efficacy with technology, digital literacy, critical thinking skills, and learning in multiple disciplines and academic subject areas. Digital game-based learning also allows for mind-wandering and has been shown to increase a child’s engagement and enjoyment in learning activities. On the other hand, it has been associated with a decrease in focused attention and poor language development. In addition, negative outcomes associated with excessive media use have been linked to physical (mobility and exercise) aspects. Indeed, excessive use has been associated with poor gross motor skills, physical inactivity, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Additionally, mind-wandering includes advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages are the generation of new ideas and innovations, the connection of seemingly unrelated concepts leading to problem-solving, the enhancement of divergent thinking, and an increased self-awareness. Among the disadvantages are a reduction in task performance, negative emotions stemming from rumination on negative thoughts, a decrease in the ability to focus due to distraction, and unproductivity.

In the context of DGBL, there is an increased potential for learning for children under the age of 5. Specifically, this potential for learning is increased when it allows for mind-wandering and creative problem-solving. Yet all these advantages should be coupled with the positive social contexts of DGBL: enhanced interactions with adults and peers.

Finally, it is important to note that there is much need for further research in this area. It is vital to take into consideration the importance of digital literacy and ensure that children can independently navigate digital platforms by themselves. An acquisition of any skill requires training and digital literacy is no exception.

Summary of the Study

This case study introduced the 28-month-old child, Ryan, to tablet-based educational games. He was not instructed on how to operate the tablet and was only allowed to use the selected games. A total of 15 play sessions occurred in his caregiver’s kitchen and lasted for an average of 25 minutes each. The sessions were video recorded, and a caregiver was present at all times to interact with Ryan. The recorded footage was later coded following a specific literature-based scheme that considered Ryan’s emotions (affect), his behaviors during the interaction, his verbalizations, the specific iPad manipulations he uses (tap, drag, and swipe, among others), and the caregiver’s behaviors. Mind-wandering was conceptualized as perceived bouts of boredom or distraction, and the hypothesis stated that mind-wandering would lead to positive learning outcomes.

Ryan’s affective states identified as boredom and distracted (mind-wandering) significantly predicted his attentiveness to the games and the tablet. In other words, Ryan was more likely to become focused on the tablet after bouts of mind-wandering. The caregiver’s questions to Ryan predicted his attentiveness and his frustration. Moreover, confusion and attentiveness predicted navigation proficiency.

Implications and Conclusion

This case study sheds light on the importance of the caregiver’s role in the use of DGBL, even if the role is minimal and requires simple prompts in the form of questions. These questions help increase the likelihood of attentiveness. Mind-wandering also predicts attentiveness. This means that mind-wandering plays an important role in learning, given that attentiveness is associated with navigation proficiency.

The study implies that even though mind-wandering may behaviorally seem counterproductive to learning, it is an important stepping stone in the learning process. Thus, it is imperative to identify and encourage it. This process needs to occur with a present and engaged caregiver to facilitate this learning of digital literacy. Young children may use tablets, and inevitably will given our technological age, and we must be aware of the processes that occur when tablet use occurs and configure this process in ways that are maximally beneficial for young children.