How scientists were so wrong about your kids' self-control skills

How scientists were so wrong about your kids' self-control skills

Children and Technology

How scientists were so wrong about your kids' self-control skills


The prevailing sense is that excessive and early screen time has turned our children’s young minds into zombified mush.

Our children almost certainly lack any sort of self-regulation.


The marshmallow test says otherwise.

The 50-year-old study is a psychological experiment aimed at measuring children’s self-control. From 1968 to 2017, John Protzko, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, administered marshmallow tests to children.

How it works

The simple test works like this:

  • A marshmallow is placed in front of the child.
  • The child is told they can either enjoy the treat now or wait a while and enjoy two marshmallows later.
  • The test is meant to measure self-control and the child’s ability to delay gratification.

Protzko plotted the average amount of time the children have delayed eating the marshmallow and adjusted for age differences since older kids are usually better at delayed gratification.

Here’s how kids fared over time.

Circles represent the average delay time in one marshmallow test trial. Credit: John Protzko

“Kids these days are able to wait longer than children were on the same exact same task 50 years ago,” wrote Protzko in his analysis. “Each year, all else equal, corresponds to an increase in ability to delay gratification by another six seconds.”

Surprising, even to experts

Protzko sought out 260 experts in cognitive development before the analysis asking them to predict the results. Only 16 percent believed that children’s self-control would have improved over the last 50 years. Thirty-two percent predicted there would be no change. More than half at 52 percent believed it would have gotten worse.

Not very optimistic were they?

Protzko calls it the “kids these days effect.”

Meaning that kids these days have always been seen as worse off in behavior and other ways than kids raised a generation before. So remember that moms when the older/wiser generation weighs in with some unsolicited parenting advice about how to raise your kids.


Even the experts are not immune from such thinking. Protzko wrote:

“It appears the experts in cognitive development are themselves not free from such a bias. The persistent belief that each new generation of children are the downfall of civilization does not just affect ancient Greek playwrights, but also rears its head when scientists are making predictions about data.”

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