IT’S WIDELY acknowledged that children are spending more and more time using tech devices, but less is known about the long-term effects of this screen time.
A team of researchers has analysed over 30 studies published on the subject over the past 23 years.
They report that television and video games have negative effects on children’s cognitive functions, but that they can also be beneficial, particularly for learning and concentration.
“Those in policymaking positions should supply suitable guidance, involvement and backing for children’s digital use,” say the study authors.
Indeed, the experts behind this research recommend that policymakers support families in optimising children’s use of tech devices, rather than limiting screen time, which they see as a potential source of conflict, by focusing on content that has positive effects on the brain.
This is the conclusion of a review of 33 studies, published between Jan 2000 and Apr 2023, using neuroimaging technology to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of over 30,000 children under the age of 12. All types of digital experience, from games to movies to internet use, were taken into account.
Published in the journal Early Education and Development, this research reveals that these digital activities are having “a significant impact on the shape of children’s brains and their functioning,” but that these effects, while most often negative, can also be positive in some cases.
A total of six studies suggest that these early digital experiences could prove beneficial to children’s brain functionality, particularly in terms of their ability to concentrate and learn. Video games could also improve children’s executive function and cognitive skills.
More negative effects
The team of experts from the Education University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Normal University and Macquarie University in Australia, however, report a large number of negative effects on children’s brains.
In particular, they point to changes in the prefrontal cortex, partly linked to working memory or the ability to react flexibly to a situation, but also in the parietal lobe, involved in touch or the perception of cold, heat or pain.
Time spent in front of a screen could also have an impact on the temporal lobe, linked to memory, hearing and language, and the occipital lobe, which interprets visual information.
More generally, the researchers explain that these digital experiences at a young age could harm users’ cognitive development.
In more detail, they explain that using a tablet could negatively influence brain function and problem-solving, that video games and the internet, if used excessively, could impact intelligence scores and brain volume, while intensive media use could prove detrimental to visual processing and intellectual cognitive functions.
In light of these findings, the researchers are calling on policymakers to take action, without calling for a limit on the amount of time children spend on screens – which might seem surprising at first sight.
“Limiting their screen time is an effective but confronting way, and more innovative, friendly, and practical strategies could be developed and implemented,” explains professor Hui Li of the Education University of Hong Kong, quoted in a news release.
‘Bolstering brain growth in children’
The experts’ intention is not to promote or encourage the intensive use of digital technology, but to encourage the implementation of programmes and initiatives designed to promote content that is more beneficial to children’s brain development.
In other words, if children are going to spend time on screens, it might as well be used to stimulate their cognitive abilities, rather than to impair them.
“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,” concludes the study lead author, Dr Dandan Wu.
The researcher does, however, point to the need for further research into the impact of screens on the brain functions of this young audience. – AFP Relaxnews