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Children’s brains shaped by their time on tech devices

Nov. 20, 2023.
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A review of 23 years of neuroimaging research on impacts on brain function on more than 30,000 children under age 12

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Editor, Mindplex

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Time spent watching television or playing computer games has measurable, long-term negative and positive effects on children’s brain function, according to a review of 23 years of neuroimaging research.

Published Nov. 16 in the peer-reviewed journal Early Education and Development, the analysis of 33 studies used neuroimaging technology to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of more than 30,000 children under the age of 12. 

Brain changes

Among the findings: screen time leads to changes in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex—the base of executive functions such as working memory and the ability to plan or to respond flexibly to situations. It also finds impacts on the parietal lobe, which helps us to process touch, pressure, heat, cold, and pain; the temporal lobe, which is important for memory, hearing and language; and the occipital lobe, which helps us to interpret visual information.

The research team, which included experts from the Education University of Hong Kong, the Shanghai Normal University in China and Macquarie University in Australia, wanted to know how digital activity affected the brain’s plasticity—or malleability—in critical periods of development. It is known that visual development mostly takes place before the age of eight, while the key time for language acquisition is up to 12.

They synthesized and evaluated studies on children’s digital use of screens, games, virtual scenes and associated brain development published between January 2000 and April 2023, with the ages of participants ranging from six months upwards.

Negative impacts

The paper concludes that these early digital experiences are having a significant impact on the shape of children’s brains and their functioning, potentially positive and negative, but mainly more negative.

For example, negative impacts were witnessed in some studies with how screen time influences the brain function required for attention, executive control abilities, inhibitory control, cognitive processes, and functional connectivity. Other studies suggested that higher screen time is associated with lower functional connectivity in brain areas related to language and cognitive control, potentially adversely affecting cognitive development.

Some device-based research were assessed in the research pool. Tablet device users were found to have worse brain function and problem-solving tasks. Video gaming and high internet users were found, in four studies, to produce negative changes in brain areas, impacting intelligence scores and brain volume.

And general “intensive media usage” was shown to potentially impact visual processing and higher cognitive function regions.

Positive impacts

There were six studies, however, demonstrating how these digital experiences can positively impact a child’s brain functionality. One found improved focusing and learning abilities in the frontal lobe of the brain. Another study suggested playing video games can increase cognitive demand, potentially enhancing children’s executive funct

CITATION: Dandan Wu, Xinyi Dong, Danqing Liu & Hui Li (2023) How Early Digital Experience Shapes Young Brains During 0-12 Years: A Scoping Review, Early Education and Development, DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2023.2278117 (open-access)

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