Screen time has a long-term impact on the shape and function of youngsters’ brains, according to a new study.
Watching television, playing video games or using a tablet all have both positive and negative effects, say scientists.
A new review of 23 years’ worth of neuroimaging research, including 33 studies measuring the impact of digital technology on the brains of children under 12, found that screen time leads to changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.
The pre-frontal cortex is in charge of functions including working memory and the ability to plan or respond flexibly in different situations.
Tablet device users were found to have worse brain function and problem-solving ability.
Video gaming and high internet users were found, in four studies, to produce negative changes in brain areas, impacting intelligence scores and brain volume.
However, researchers also found playing video games can increase cognitive demand, potentially enhancing children’s executive functions and cognitive skills.
Although the researchers stop short of advocating limits on screen time they are urging policymakers instead to promote programs that support positive brain development.
Study author and Chair Professor Hui Li of The Education University of Hong Kong said: “It should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development may be influenced by their digital experiences.
“Limiting their screen time is an effective but confronting way, and more innovative, friendly, and practical strategies could be developed and implemented.
“Those in policy-making positions should supply suitable guidance, involvement and backing for children’s digital use.”
The findings, now published in the Early Education and Development Journal, also found screen time can impact 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.
Researchers had set out to discover 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.
They synthesized and evaluated studies on children’s digital use and associated brain development published between January 2000 and April 2023, with the ages of participants ranging from six months upwards.
Screen-based media were the most commonly used by the participants, followed by games, virtual visual scenes, video viewing and editing, and internet or pad use.
The paper concludes that these early digital experiences are having a significant impact on the shape of children’s brains and their functioning.
Overall Chair Professor Li’s team conclude that policymakers must act on these findings to support evidence-based practice for teachers and parents.
Lead author, Dr Dandan Wu of the Education University of Hong Kong, said: “This investigation contains significant implications for practical improvement and policy-making.
“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.
“This could involve offering resources and incentives for the creation and examination of digital interventions aimed at bolstering brain growth in children.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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