Children are spending more and more time using tech devices, but not much is known about the long-term effects of this screen time.
To address this, researchers have analysed over 30 studies published on the subject over the past 23 years. They report that television and video games have negative effects on children’s cognitive functions, but that they can also be beneficial, particularly for learning and concentration.
This is the conclusion of a review of 33 studies published between January 2000 and April this year, using neuroimaging to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of over 30,000 children under the age of 12. All types of digital experience, from games and movies to internet use, were taken into account.
Published in the journal Early Education and Development, the findings reveal that digital activities “have a significant impact on the shape of children’s brains and their functioning”, but these effects, while often negative, can be positive in some cases.
A total of six studies suggest that these early digital experiences could prove beneficial to children’s brain functionality, particularly in terms of their ability to concentrate and learn. Video games could also improve children’s executive function and cognitive skills.
Nevertheless, the experts from the Education University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Normal University, and Macquarie University in Australia report a large number of negative effects on children’s brains.
In particular, they point to changes in the prefrontal cortex – partly linked to working memory or the ability to react flexibly to a situation – as well as in the parietal lobe, involved in touch or the perception of cold, heat or pain.
Time spent in front of a screen could also have an impact on the temporal lobe, linked to memory, hearing and language; and the occipital lobe, which interprets visual information.
In more detail, the experts explain that:
- using a tablet could negatively influence brain function and problem-solving;
- excessive use of video games and the internet could impact intelligence scores and brain volume; and
- intensive media use could prove detrimental to visual processing and intellectual cognitive functions.
They thus urge policymakers to take action without calling for a limit on the amount of time children spend on screens, which would be an “effective but confronting way, when more innovative, friendly, and practical strategies could be developed and implemented”.
The intent here is not to promote or encourage the intensive use of digital technology, but to encourage the implementation of programmes and initiatives designed to promote content that is more beneficial to children’s brain development.
In other words, if children are going to spend time on screens, it might as well be used to stimulate their cognitive abilities, rather than impair them.
“It is imperative for policymakers to develop and execute policies grounded in empirical evidence to safeguard and enhance brain development in children as they navigate the digital era,” lead author Dr Dandan Wu concludes.
“This could involve offering resources and incentives for the creation and examination of digital interventions aimed at bolstering brain growth in children.”
The researcher does, however, point to the need for further research into the impact of screens on the brain functions of this young audience.