Children’s brains shaped by their screen time — that’s both good and bad

HONG KONG — Screen time has a long-lasting impact on the structure and functionality of young people’s brains, a new study suggests. Scientists report that activities such as watching television, playing video games, or using a tablet can have both beneficial and detrimental consequences.

According to a comprehensive review spanning 23 years and 33 neuroimaging studies, screen time causes alterations in the pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for functions such as working memory and adaptive response in various situations.

The research highlights that children under 12 who use tablet devices tend to exhibit poorer brain function and diminished problem-solving capabilities. Additionally, video gaming and heavy internet use displayed a link to adverse changes in brain regions affecting intelligence quotients and brain volume in four separate studies.

However, the study also suggests that playing video games might increase cognitive demands, thereby possibly enhancing children’s executive functions and cognitive abilities.

Children screen time: Toddlers on iPad or tablet
Babies playing on a tablet (Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash)

While the researchers do not explicitly endorse restrictions on screen time, they do call on policymakers to endorse initiatives that foster positive brain development.

“It should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development may be influenced by their digital experiences,” states Hui Li, Chair Professor at The Education University of Hong Kong, in a media release. “Limiting their screen time is an effective but confronting way, and more innovative, friendly, and practical strategies could be developed and implemented.”

The researchers emphasize that policymakers should offer adequate guidance and support for the digital engagement of children. The findings also reveal that screen time influences the parietal lobe — involved in sensory processing; the temporal lobe — crucial for memory, hearing, and language; and the occipital lobe — integral to visual interpretation.

The research aimed to understand how digital activity affects brain plasticity during vital developmental stages. Prior studies have established that visual development predominantly occurs before age eight, while the primary period for language learning extends to the age of 12.

Reviewing literature from January 2000 through April 2023, researchers examined studies on the digital habits of children from as young as six months-old and their impact on brain development. The data indicates that screen-based media were the most frequently used digital activity among the study participants.

The paper concludes with an urgent call to action for policymakers to base decisions on these findings to support evidence-based practices for educators and parents.

“Foremost, it should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development may be influenced by their digital experiences,” says Dr. Dandan Wu, also from The Education University of Hong Kong. “As such, they should supply suitable guidance, involvement, and backing for children’s digital use. This could involve offering resources and incentives for the creation and examination of digital interventions aimed at bolstering brain growth in children.”

The study is published in the Early Education and Development Journal.

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South West News Service writer Ellie McDonald contributed to this report.

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