Time spent watching television or playing computer games has measurable, long-term effects on children’s brain function, according to a review of 23 years of neuroimaging research that, while showing negative impacts, also demonstrates some positive effects.
However, researchers do not advocate 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.
The review of the evidence, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Education and Early Childhood Developmentis an analysis of 33 studies using neuroimaging technology to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of children under 12 years old. In total, more than 30,000 participants are included.
In particular, research reveals that screen time leads to changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the basis of executive functions such as working memory and the ability to plan or respond flexibly to situations. It also finds impacts on the parietal lobe, which helps us process touch, pressure, heat, cold and pain; the temporal lobe, important for memory, hearing and language; and the occipital lobe, which helps us interpret visual information.
“Educators and caregivers should recognize that children’s cognitive development can be influenced by their digital experiences,” says the study’s corresponding author, Professor Hui Li, from the Faculty of Education and Human Development, at the Faculty of Education and Human Development. The Hong Kong University of Education. “Limiting screen time is an effective but conflicting way, and more innovative, user-friendly and practical strategies could be developed and implemented.
“Those in decision-making positions should provide appropriate guidance, involvement and support for children’s digital use. »
The research team, which included experts from the Education University of Hong Kong, including those from Shanghai Normal University in China and Macquarie University in Australia, wanted to know how digital activity affected plasticity – or malleability – of the brain during critical periods of development. We know that visual development occurs mainly before the age of eight, while the key time for language acquisition is up to 12 years of age.
They synthesized and evaluated studies on children’s digital use and associated brain development published between January 2000 and April 2023, with participant ages ranging from six months and older.
Screen-based media was most commonly used by participants, followed by gaming, virtual visual scenes, watching and editing videos, and using the Internet or a pad.
The article concludes that these early digital experiences have a significant impact on the shape of children’s brains and how they function.
This was deemed both potentially positive and negative, but mostly more negative.
For example, negative impacts have been observed in some studies on how screen time influences brain function required for attention, executive control skills, inhibitory control, cognitive processes, and functional connectivity. Other studies suggest that longer screen time is associated with lower functional connectivity in brain areas related to language and cognitive control, which could harm cognitive development.
Some device-based searches were evaluated in the search pool. Tablet users were found to have poorer brain function and problem-solving tasks. Video games and heavy internet users were found in four studies to produce negative changes in brain areas, impacting intelligence scores and brain volume.
And “heavy media use” has been shown to potentially impact visual processing and higher cognitive function regions.
However, six studies have demonstrated how these digital experiences can have a positive impact on a child’s brain functionality.
For example, improved concentration and learning abilities have been seen in the frontal lobe of the brain. Meanwhile, another study suggests that playing video games can increase cognitive demand, potentially improving children’s executive functions and cognitive skills.
Professor Li’s team concludes that policymakers must act on these findings to support evidence-based practice for teachers and parents.
Lead author Dr Dandan Wu from the Education University of Hong Kong said: “This investigation contains significant implications for practical improvement and policy-making. Above all, educators and caregivers must recognize that children’s cognitive development can be influenced by their digital experiences. As such, they should provide appropriate guidance, involvement and support for children’s digital use.
“It is imperative that policymakers develop and implement empirically-based policies to safeguard and enhance children’s brain development as they navigate the digital age.
“This could involve offering resources and incentives for the creation and testing of digital interventions aimed at stimulating brain growth in children.”
A limitation of the study, the authors comment, is the lack of research reviewed, which they say may be because this topic is “new and emerging, and research technologies are also evolving.” Furthermore, “this scoping study,” they add, “did not address crucial questions, such as whether it is the first uses of digital technology (e.g., time spent in front of a screen) or the processes cognitive (i.e. learning experience) that led to the change. of brain function and structure, and whether there are different effects depending on the types of digital equipment and mode of use.
Therefore, the authors recommend that future research explore techniques such as longitudinal research into the impact of screens on brain function.
Reference: Wu D, Dong Early educational development. 2023: 1-37. do I: 10.1080/10409289.2023.2278117
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