A new evidence review published in the journal Early Education and Development looked at 23 years of neuroimaging research, specifically 33 studies that used neuroimaging techniques to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of children under the age of 12. It found that screen time leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
While screen time impacting your child’s brain might sound like a reason to toss out your televisions, computers, and smartphones, researchers say that digital experiences early in life have some positive effects as well as negative ones.
One study found that media use improves focusing and learning abilities in the frontal lobe of the brain and that playing video games can potentially increase cognitive demand, improving a child’s executive functions and cognitive skills.
However, screen time was tied in other studies to lower functionality in areas of the brain dealing with language and cognitive control, potentially negatively impacting a child’s cognitive development. Tablet users were also found to have more trouble with problem-solving tasks.
The prefrontal cortex is often referred to as the center of executive function, involving higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, decision making, problem solving, and reasoning. It allows individuals to set goals, make predictions, and strategize to achieve those goals.
Screen time also has an impact on the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. The parietal lobe is primarily responsible for processing somatosensory information, which includes touch, pressure, temperature, and pain. It receives and interprets signals from the skin and other sensory receptors throughout the body, allowing individuals to perceive and respond to sensations. It also plays a role in things like spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination.
The temporal lobe is involved in several important functions, including auditory processing, memory, and aspects of language. The occipital lobe is primarily responsible for processing visual information.
Lead author Dr. Dandan Wu of the Education University of Hong Kong acknowledges that the evidence review was limited, and has recommended future research to investigate “whether it is the early digital use (for example, screen time) or the cognitive processes (i.e., learning experience) that have driven the change of brain function and structure, and whether there are different effects of digital equipment types and the mode of use.”
That said, Wu feels the early research “contains significant implications for practical improvement and policymaking,” and that “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.”
Screen time is consistently cited as a top concern among parents. A previous study out of Japan, published early this year, found that children one and under who were exposed to screens for more than one hour each day had more developmental delays than their screen-free counterparts. That study attributed the developmental delays to children having less real-world experiences where they can learn from interacting with their environment rather than simply watching things on a screen.