The more hours children spend glued to electronic devices, the greater the effects on key areas of their brains, according to a large review of studies that included more than 30,000 children under the age of 12.
The amount of time children spend watching TV, playing video games, surfing the Internet, or watching TikTok videos has measurable long-term effects on their brain function. This showed a review of neuroimaging-based research spanning 23 years. However, it was noteworthy that while in the majority of cases the effects of the screen on the children’s brain were negative, some studies also showed some positive effects.
“X-ray” of the review
The review, published in the journal Early Education and Development, analyzed 33 previous studies in which the effect of digital technology on the brains of children under 12 was measured using neuroimaging technology. In total, more than 30,000 young volunteers were involved.
Changes in key areas of the brain
As it emerged from the analysis, screen use by young children leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is the “basis” of executive functions such as working memory and the ability to plan as well as to respond to different situations.
There was also an effect on the parietal lobe which helps process touch, pressure, heat, cold and pain as well as the temporal lobe which is crucial for memory, hearing and language. Finally, an effect appeared to exist in the occipital lobe involved in the processing of visual information.
Effect on cognitive development
“Educators and parents alike need to recognize that children’s cognitive development can be affected by their digital experiences,” said Professor Hui Li from the School of Education and Human Development at the Education University of Hong Kong, lead author of the new study. .
“Limiting the use of the screen is an effective way, but it generates controversy. Thus more innovative, friendly and practical strategies could be developed and adopted to solve the issue” he added.
Children’s… digital life and brain plasticity
The research team, which also included experts from Shanghai University in China and Macquarie University in Australia, wanted to find out how children’s digital lives affect brain plasticity during “milestone” periods of their development. It is known that development in terms of visual information processing takes place mainly before the age of eight, while the “key” period for language acquisition extends to the age of 12.
So the researchers analyzed studies examining the correlation between digital media use and brain development. These studies were published between January 2000 and April 2023 – involving children six months of age and older.
When it came to screen use, based on the studies, watching TV, mobile or computer came first followed by video games, virtual reality games, watching videos and surfing the internet.
The review concluded that digital experiences… from gentle fingernails have a significant effect on both the shape and function of children’s brains. And this, based on the findings, has two aspects, one (mostly) negative and one (in some cases) positive.
The negative effects
For example, in terms of negative effects, some of the studies reviewed showed that screen use affects brain functions related to attention, executive control, cognitive processes, and functional connectivity.
Other studies have shown that a lot of screen use is associated with lower connectivity of brain regions related to language and cognitive control, which can have a negative effect on cognitive development.
Effects depending on the… device
There were also some studies that analyzed the effects depending on the type of device the children were using. From them it emerged, for example, that children who used the tablet a lot showed worse brain function as well as lower performance in solving problems. Those children who mainly played video games or spent many hours of the day surfing the Internet showed negative changes in different areas of the brain, which had an impact on intelligence tests as well as their brain volume.
But also in general, the heavy use of all digital media appeared to negatively affect the areas involved in the processing of visual information and higher mental functions.
The positive effects
However, there were also six studies of those examined that showed some positive effects on children’s brain function. One of them concluded that the use of screens is associated with an improvement in concentration and learning ability by inducing changes in the frontal lobe. Another study found that playing video games “sharpens” children’s executive functions and cognitive abilities.
Digital interventions are required
Overall, the research team concluded by stating that the authorities should take into account all these findings in order to guide teachers and parents in the right direction. “Something like this could be about offering the means as well as the incentives to create digital interventions aimed at enhancing children’s brain development.”
Theodora N. Tsoli