Screen Time Might Change The Shape Of A Child's Brain. But What Does That Actually Mean?

A new study suggests there are negative and positive impacts to screen time.
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Every parent knows that loads of screen time probably isn’t great news for our kids – but what exactly is it doing to their brains?

A new study has revealed time spent watching television or playing computer games has measurable and long-term effects on children’s brain function.

The review of 23 years of neuroimaging research showed there are negative and positive impacts to screen time.

What did the study find?

The new research, published in the journal Early Education and Development, looked at 33 studies which used neuroimaging technology to measure the impact of digital technology on the brains of children under the age of 12.

In total, more than 30,000 participants were included and screen time was found to lead to changes in:

  • the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for memory and the ability to plan or to respond flexibly to situations
  • 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 said early digital experiences are having a “significant impact” on the shape of children’s brains and their functioning – this was deemed as both potentially positive and negative, but mainly negative.

Did the type of screen matter?

Apparently so. Tablet device users were found to have worse brain function and problem-solving tasks.

Video gaming and high internet users were found, in four studies, to produce negative changes in brain areas, impacting intelligence scores and brain volume.

And general “intensive media usage” was shown to potentially impact visual processing and higher cognitive function regions.

But it’s not all bad

There were six studies demonstrating how digital experiences can positively impact a child’s brain functionality. One found improved focusing and learning abilities in the frontal lobe of the brain.

Meanwhile, another suggested playing video games can increase cognitive demand, potentially enhancing children’s executive functions and cognitive skills.

Researchers also flagged the study has limitations, as it’s hard to tell whether it’s the screen time itself or the child’s learning experience that drives the change of brain function and structure.

So, what do parents need to know?

As with everything in life, when it comes to screen time, it’s all about moderation.

The researchers stressed they don’t want to advocate limits on screen time as they said this can lead to confrontation.

There are already recommended guidelines in place for screen time among younger children from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which suggests it’s not recommended at all for children under two, while for kids aged two to four it should be no more than one hour a day. Some have labelled this advice extreme, however.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), based in the UK, has a more laidback approach. It suggests evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time.

“Our primary recommendation is that families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child, the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep,” they said.

The researchers of the new study suggested instead of screen time limits, policymakers should help parents navigate the digital world by promoting programs which support positive brain development.

Things you can do

The RCPCH recommends for parents to ask themselves four questions to ascertain whether screen time is bordering on unhealthy levels in their homes:

1. Is screen time in your household controlled?

2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?

3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?

4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

Childhood development expert and associate professor Catherine Draper, of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said her view is that “there are benefits of educational screen time, but we don’t know enough about the potential harms”.

In a piece for The Conversation, she advised parents to be aware of how screen-based activities influence their child’s development and behaviour, and to respond accordingly.

“For example, if a child struggles with managing sensory input – like loud noises, bright lights or certain textures – it may be better for them to avoid recreational screen time,” she suggested.

Setting boundaries on screen time is also important and Draper encouraged parents to keep tabs on how a child’s screen time might stop them from doing other things that are developmentally beneficial – like writing or drawing.

Lastly, she also asked parents to check screens are set up in a way that encourages good posture.

“As much as possible, involve children and adolescents in conversations about why a healthy balance of screen time will benefit them,” she concluded.

“This can help them take ownership of their choices about their health and development – both in the present as well as their future health and well-being.”

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