Brain Health

Kids’ Brains Shaped by Their Time on Tech Devices

Chances are that most parents have worried about the impact of tech devices on their kids’ brains. Whether it’s watching TV, playing videos games, or scrolling on a smartphone, there’s little doubt that technology has an effect on children’s brain function. But new research analyzing 23 years of neuroimaging studies have found measurable positive and negative effects.

The Research

The team of researchers included experts from three respected universities: the Education University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Normal University in China, and Macquarie University in Australia. Together, the scientists sought to understand how digital activity affected the brain’s plasticity during critical development periods.

Evaluating 33 studies that focused on children’s digital use and brain development between 2000 and 2023. All of the participants were under age 12 with some as young as 6 months old.

The Results

The researchers discovered that screen time led to a variety of changes to the brain, both positive and negative. Some of the studies showed that screen time negatively impacted important functions of the brain, such as inhibitory control, attention, functional connectivity (especially in areas related to language and cognitive control), executive control, and cognitive processes. Specific highlights include changes to:

• The pre-frontal cortex (where executive functions like planning, working memory, and cognitive flexibility take place)

• The parietal lobe (which helps process hot, cold, touch, pressure, and pain)

• The temporal love (which is important for memory, language, and hearing)

• The occipital lobe (which helps interpret visual information)

In addition, the types of devices played a role in brain changes, including:

• Tablet users had the worst brain function and problem-solving tasks.

• Video gaming and high internet use was found (in four studies) to negative impact brain volume and intelligence scores.

• Intensive media usage in general was found to (potentially) impact visual processing and higher cognitive function areas of the brain.

The Good News

It wasn’t all bad news. In fact, six of the studies showed how digital experiences can make a positive impact on the functionality of a child’s brain.

One study found that children had improvements in the front lobe which increased focus and learning.

Another study suggested that video games might increase cognitive demand. This, in turn, has the potential to improve executive function and other cognitive skills in children.

To be clear, the research team didn’t recommend screen time limits, but they did urge policymakers to do more to help promote digital programs that would better support positive brain development.

“This investigation contains significant implications for practical improvement and policymaking,” says lead author Dr. Dandan Wu of the Education University of Hong Kong. “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.”

The evidence review was published in the November 16, 2023 edition of the journal Early Education and Development.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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