Time spent playing games on a smartphone or computer and watching TV has measurable and long-term effects on children’s brain function – mostly negative and some positive, according to a meta-analysis by researchers in Hong Kong of 23 years of neuroimaging research on 30,000 children from six months to 12 years.
However, the researchers stopped short of recommending limits on screen time, which they say can lead to confrontation. Instead, they urge policymakers to help parents navigate the digital world by promoting programs that support positive brain development.
Just published in the journal Early Education and Development under the title “How Early Digital Experience Shapes Young Brains During 0 to 12 Years: A Scoping Review,” it analyzed 33 studies using neuroimaging technology to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of young children.
What does screen time do to the brain?
In particular, the research finds screen time leads to changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is 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.
“It should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development could be influenced by their digital experiences,” said the study’s corresponding author, Prof. Hui Li of the Education University of Hong Kong. Colleagues at Shanghai Normal University in China and Macquarie University in Australia collaborated.
“Limiting their screen time is an effective but confronting way. More innovative, friendly, and practical strategies could be developed and implemented. Those in policymaking positions should supply suitable guidance, involvement and backing for children’s digital use,” Li suggested.
The research team wanted to know how digital activity affected the brain’s plasticity – or malleability – during 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. Screen-based media were the most commonly used by the participants, followed by games, virtual visual scenes, video viewing and editing, and Internet or tablet use.
Negative impacts involved how screen time influences the brain function required for attention, executive control abilities, inhibitory control, cognitive processes, and functional connectivity, and lower functional connectivity in brain areas related to language and cognitive control that potentially adversely affecting cognitive development.
Tablet device users were found to have worse brain function and problem-solving tasks. Video gaming and regular Internet users among younger children were found to produce negative changes in brain areas, impacting IQ scores and brain volume, while general intensive media usage was shown to potentially impact visual processing and higher cognitive function regions.
There were six studies, however, that showed how these digital experiences may positively impact a child’s brain functionality; they could improve focusing and learning abilities in the frontal lobe of the brain or increase cognitive demand, potentially enhancing children’s executive functions and cognitive skills.
The lead author, Dr. Dandan Wu of Hong Kong, said that the meta-analysis “contains significant implications for practical improvement and policymaking. Foremost, it should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development may be influenced by their digital experiences. As such, they should supply suitable guidance, involvement, and backing for children’s digital use. 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.”