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Digital Device Use Can Harm a Child’s Brain Development, But It Can Also Have Positive Effects

TECHNOLOGYDigital Device Use Can Harm a Child's Brain Development, But It Can Also Have Positive Effects

Digital activity affects the plasticity of children’s brain during their critical development stages. The result of overexposure to visual stimuli can be a deterioration in working memory and a slowdown in reaction time. Children spending a lot of time in front of a screen also negatively influences their language abilities and concentration. At the same time, video gaming can stimulate certain areas of the brain responsible, among other things, for decision-making. These are the conclusions reached by researchers from Hong Kong after analyzing dozens of studies in this field.

“Human brain is shaped by the environment and experiences. First and foremost, we wanted to know if the dynamic development of digital devices influences the development of a child’s brain and how these devices shape it,” said Dr. Dandan Wu from the Education University of Hong Kong. “Importantly, we do not think that digital devices are associated only with dangers and negative consequences. They have become an integral part of modern society life. The problem is that we do not fully understand how they affect children’s brain development at an early stage. And that is what prompted us to undertake this research. ”

The scientists reviewed literature on children’s use of digital solutions and the brain development associated with it. They examined studies involving children from the age of six months to 12 years, which is the end of language competence development. The literature review covered a total of 30,000 children who most often used various types of screen media. In total, the scientists analyzed 33 neuroimaging studies from 2000-2023. In 23, the influence of digital devices on brain plasticity was noted: 15 pointed to negative effects, two gave mixed results, while six publications proven that using screens can positively shape brain functions in certain respects.

Some publications indicate a negative impact of digital devices on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for working memory and reactions, the parietal lobe, which influences the processing of sensory stimuli such as touch or temperature perception, the temporal lobe, crucial for language, memory and hearing, and the occipital lobe, by virtue of which we interpret visual information.

“Children who spend a lot of time playing video games will have more problems with expression. If they spend too much time online, some areas of their brain may shrink, which will have consequences for language functions and emotional control. They will have problems with sentence formulation or dealing with their emotions. Frequent daily use of social media may affect brain functions in terms of visual processing,” lists Prof. Hui Li from the Faculty of Education and Human Development at the Education University of Hong Kong.

It turns out that multitasking is a significant challenge for a child’s brain, and the more time it spends in front of a screen, the harder it is for it to maintain clear thinking and self-control.

“Firstly, long-term exposure to such stimuli interferes with brain functions, which can lead to a slowing down of working memory and reaction speed. A child will have problems, for example, with focusing. It will also not be able to refrain from using digital devices such as iPads or smartphones. Secondly, a child’s brain will react more strongly to distracting sounds, for example, in games. Every time it hears a characteristic sound from a game, it will attract their attention, diverting them from learning,” explains Prof. Hui Li.

The professor compares a child’s brain to a computer. If we install too many applications and programs in a device, occupy memory on the disk, it will work slower and eventually break down. In this situation, the only options are to buy a larger disk, additional memory, or a new computer. If a child spends too much time in front of a screen, their ability to receive information from the outside will be weakened. Working memory will be overwhelmed with an excess of tasks.

“There may be changes in the functioning or structure of the brain. It seems like a good reason to limit the amount of time children spend in front of the screen and encourage them to do other things, for example, play outdoors or go to the forest,” recommends the researcher from the Education University of Hong Kong. “However, every medal has two sides. Even though we focus on negative aspects, it is known that they, in some respects, also have a positive impact. There are reports showing that interaction with devices and the digital environment can stimulate certain areas, such as the frontal lobe, which plays an important role in executive functions, including working memory, cognitive shift, decision-making, or self-control. This type of use of digital devices can be compared to going to the gym. In this case, the brain is being trained.”

The question of how to protect a child’s brain in the current digital reality remains open. Researchers underline that science faces the challenge of thoroughly investigating this topic, and decision-makers need to take actions that will help parents and caregivers to guide children through the digital world safely.

“The key is to determine which elements of the digital environment have a toxic effect. Only then will we be able to create appropriate solutions to protect our children. Further empirical research is needed,” says Dr. Dandan Wu. “Watching TV turned out to be less harmful than people had thought for a long time. However, we must remember that, for example, the restrictions on showing scenes of violence on TV were introduced only when there was enough scientific evidence confirming their harmfulness.”

As the researchers emphasize, one must keep in mind that the impact of these technologies is long-term.

“In the perspective of 10-20 years, these modern solutions will certainly cause changes in the brain, which will be inherited. We can be sure that in 20-50 years, human brains will look much different than they do now,” says Prof. Hui Li. “Thus, we can say that digital devices influence the shape of human evolution. We have 10,000 years of evolution behind us, and at this moment we are entering a new stage – the digital era. Digital devices and artificial intelligence tools will have a huge impact on the shape of our brains, and this change may pass on to the next generations.”

According to the World Health Organization guidelines, children under one year of age should not use digital devices at all, and children between two and four years of age can spend a maximum of one hour a day in front of a screen, but the less, the better. Meanwhile, as the study conducted by the Academy of Special Pedagogy in Warsaw shows, in Poland, over half of the children by their sixth year of life use smartphones, tablets, or laptops on average for an hour and 15 minutes a day. Three-quarters of parents of five- and six-year-olds and half of parents of three- and four-year-olds allow them to use digital mobile tools. Every tenth child uses a smartphone before their first birthday. Nearly two-thirds of parents give their offspring digital devices as a reward or as a way to stop their child’s crying and grumbling. Children most often watch movies, videos, and video clips, less often play games, and the least frequently use educational programs and applications.

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