The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents read with their children early and often and limits on screen-based media. While book sharing may benefit attention in children, effects of animated content are controversial, and the influence of either on attention networks has not previously been studied. This study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of three separate active-task scans composed of similar 5-min stories presented in the same order for each child (audio → illustrated → animated), followed by assessment of comprehension. Five functional brain networks were defined a priori through literature review: dorsal attention network (DAN), ventral attention network (VAN), language (L), visual imagery (VI), and visual perception (VP). Analyses involved comparison of functional connectivity (FC) within- and between networks across formats, applying false discovery rate correction. Twenty-seven of 33 children completed fMRI (82%; 15 boys, 12 girls; mean 58 ± 8 months old). Comprehension of audio and illustrated stories was equivalent and lower for animation (p < 0.05). For illustration relative to audio, FC within DAN and VAN and between each of these and all other networks was similar, lower within-L, and higher between VI-VP, suggesting reduced strain on the language network using illustrations and imagery. For animation relative to illustration, FC was lower between DAN-L, VAN-VP, VAN-VI, L-VI, and L-VP, suggesting less focus on narrative, reorienting to imagery, and visual-language integration. These findings suggest that illustrated storybooks may be optimal at this age to encourage integration of attention, visual, and language networks, while animation may bias attention toward VP.
Keywords: animation; attention networks; child development; functional connectivity; screen time; story format.