Use of digital devices from an early age leaves its mark on children’s brains. Before you roll your eyes, we’re not in the business of prophesying a technological doomsday – this finding is based on a review of evidence gathered over 23 years of scientific studies. But what does it actually mean for our kids?
How the study was designed
The team of researchers evaluated 33 neuroimaging studies published between January 2000 and April 2023. The combined dataset included more than 30,000 participants, with a focus on children aged 12 and under. They first trawled through databases of published research to find the relevant studies, and then the first author manually searched through reference lists to find any that had been missed.
If you’re thinking that 33 studies don't seem all that many in two decades, this is something the authors address right off the bat in their discussion of the study's limitations: “This small sample size might be because this topic is novel and emerging, and research technologies are also evolving.” So, maybe not ideal, but it’s the best we have to work with for the moment.
What the study found
There were three headline findings. The first was that exposure to digital devices impacts both the structure and function of children’s brains, but that these effects are not necessarily negative. The second pinpointed regions of the brain that were particularly strongly affected and the third was that these changes in brain structure appear to persist long-term.
The most common types of digital media being consumed by the children in the studies were screen-based, either passive (like watching TV) or active (interacting with apps, etc.), with gaming coming second. Also included were virtual reality, video editing, internet use, and the use of tablets and e-readers.
Some of the studies concluded that more screen time has a negative impact on brain functions like attention and cognition, as well as on the connections that allow different parts of the brain to communicate.
Looking more deeply at the different types of tech, some of the evidence suggested that the use of tablets may have a negative effect on brain function and problem-solving. Gaming, too, could be associated with decreased brain volume and intelligence scores, according to some of the data.
“[T]he most vulnerable area is the prefrontal cortex and its associated executive function,” summarized the authors. The umbrella of executive function covers all the high-level cognitive skills we use as humans, such as planning, solving problems, holding information in our working memory, making decisions, and stopping ourselves from doing something dangerous or undesirable.
But six of the studies concluded that digital experiences can positively impact a child’s development, like one that showed an improvement in focus and learning mediated by the frontal lobe of the brain. Another study highlighted how video games can improve executive function and cognitive skills, something that was also echoed in a study of young adults in 2022.
So the picture, overall, was mixed. There’s no denying that growing up in a digital landscape is having some effect on kids, but to what extent, and whether it’s net positive or negative, is harder to determine.
What the authors recommend
It could be tempting to react to this body of work by immediately calling for limits to be placed on kids’ screen time, at least until we know more about what their devices are doing to their brains. But the authors of this study do not go that far.
“It should be recognized by both educators and caregivers that children’s cognitive development may be influenced by their digital experiences,” said corresponding author Chair Professor Hui Li, from The Education University of Hong Kong, in a statement.
“Limiting their screen time is an effective but confronting way, and 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.”
Commenting further on what alternative responses to the scientific evidence could entail, lead author Dr Dandan Wu said, “This could involve offering resources and incentives for the creation and examination of digital interventions aimed at bolstering brain growth in children.”
But there remain some key unanswered questions, which the study authors say should be the focus of future research, such as whether the “dose” or amount of time spent using digital devices is correlated with the level of change in the brain. While some of the evidence collected suggested that any effects on the brain could be long-lasting, more research is needed to confirm this.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle – digital devices are here, and they’re here to stay. What this study highlights is the importance of creating evidence-based policies to try to counter the impacts of technology use on developing children, whilst also not missing out on the benefits these innovations can bring.
The study is published in the journal Early Education and Development.