In the IDA course "Dynamics of Individual Differences", students write a blog post on a topic of their interest that is related to an aspect that differs between individuals and changes across the lifespan. Enjoy reading the blog post of Viola!
Can Technology Really “Rewire” Our Children’s Brains?
A Ted Talk grabbed my attention in which the neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, claimed that the threat of technology, which due to its “ability of rewiring our children’s brain”, is as important as climate change to our children. Yes, technology has a huge impact on our society and on our children. It affects the way we learn, communicate and live. However, in 2022, we will no longer be able to speak of climate change but instead of a climatic crisis, whose consequences on our children are devastating (Rees, 2021). But can we also speak of a technology crisis? Is that not too far-fetched? Can technology rewire our children’s brains?
Claims, like these of Susan Greenfield, have raised a hyped media debate even though scientific research on this topic is still in its infancy. As a result of the debate, parents worry about how long the screen time for their children should be. Questions like “At what age should my child get a smartphone?”, “Should I allow my child to have a social media account?” come up on a regular basis. Living in a digitized world, most preschoolers are introduced to digital devices before they get exposed to books (Hopkins et al., 2013). Is this a reason to panic? Can we speak of a technology crisis? Let’s dive into the research and see what scientists have to say about this whole debate. This article wants you to relax, sit back and understand what research already knows, and most important, what research does not yet know about how technology influences the (cognitive) development of children.
What Exactly Are We Talking About?
Before we go into the debate, let’s briefly define what exactly is meant by these broad and vague terms. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, whereas media is described as any means of communication. Hence, technology helps us to do things and media to communicate things. Since there are so many different types of technology, in this article we will specifically focus on television, smartphones, and social media.
The term cognition represents processes and functions to use existing and generate new knowledge, like attention, memory and decision making (Dhakal & Bobrin, 2021). When speaking of cognitive development, neuroplasticity is very important to mention. The term plasticity describes the brain’s ability to change by reorganizing its structure, function, and connections. Accordingly, through practice and repetition, children can create and reinforce new neural pathways to learn new skills, habits, and ways of thinking (Gamma, 2021). Now that we are all on the same page, let’s dive into the debate.
What Does Science Have to Say About This Whole Media Debate?
Since young children continue to prefer television as their primary media, with children under the age of eight watching it for an average of 45 minutes per day in the United States, we will first focus on the impact of television on children’s cognitive development (Statista, 2022). Many studies have shown that watching television has a negative impact on children regarding their school performance, intelligence, attention deficits, learning and reading abilities (Johnson et al., 2007; Mundy et al., 2020; Walsh et al., 2020). Another study found that children who watched television during their first three years of life experience negative effects in later childhood, including attentional deficiencies. As an underlying reason “excessive sensory stimulation” which can lead to cognitive deficits was proposed (Christakis et al., 2018). But what does “excessive” mean? One hour of TV for a toddler? Two or six hours for teenagers per day? Science has not yet defined this.
Let’s have a look at the other side of the coin. Considering potential influences, like household income and educational level of parents, a recent study revealed that watching TV and playing video games at younger ages had a beneficial impact on later tests of working memory and intelligence among boys, but not among girls (Soares et al., 2021). We can get already a first insight of how entangled this debate is. Taking this one step further, a study with a follow up after two years, first found a negative effect of TV on intelligence among children. However, after taking the educational level of the parents into account, this negative effect disappeared (Sauce et al., 2022). How can we explain all these mixed results? There is no definite answer to this, however one reason could be that it does not matter how much children watch TV, rather what they watch and whether they watch it with their parents. High-quality TV (like the program Sesame Street) has shown to have a positive impact on children’s school performance and cognitive abilities (Sauce et al., 2022), whereas watching inappropriate content (e.g. fast-paced fantasy cartoons, like SpongeBob) during childhood can lead to negative outcomes on children’s cognition and behavior (Kostyrka-Allchorne et al., 2017).
What About the Effect of Smartphones on Cognitive Development?
Although in Europe 80% of the children aged nine to 16 use smartphones on a daily basis, the effect of smartphone use on cognitive development has not been investigated as extensively (Smahel, 2020). But what do we currently know? Research has found that smartphone usage can negatively impact self-control and the ability of task switching among children (Guxens et al., 2016), as well as academic performance among students (Amez & Baert, 2020). Nevertheless, don’t trust a statistic you didn’t fake yourself. It is crucial to look at the way a study was carried out. First, most studies exclusively looked at the negative impacts of smartphone use, which is extremely biased. Second, evaluating once cognitive abilities and smartphone use simultaneously leaves us with the chicken-and-egg dilemma: Do cognitive abilities predict smartphone usage, or does smartphone usage predict cognitive abilities?
Research looks at long-term effects to determine whether smartphone use influences cognitive abilities or the other way around. Since smartphones are a quite recent development, there aren’t many long-term studies investigating the effect of smartphones on cognitive development. One study found that owning a mobile phone at the age of nine has been shown to be negatively associated with the academic outcomes at the age of thirteen (Dempsey et al., 2019). Studies from Spain and England compared schools with mobile phone bans, to schools without a ban, and found that banning mobile phones from schools had very different outcomes depending on the students, for low-achieving students leading to higher grades, whereas for high-achieving students, the ban made no differences (Beland & Murphy, 2016; Beneito & Vicente-Chirivella, 2020). One thought for you – but which would go beyond this article – is, whether schools could use mobile phone bans to reduce educational inequality. Interestingly, in Sweden, no relationship between mobile phone bans and grades could be observed (Kessel et al., 2020). Possible reasons could be that technology is quite extensively integrated in Swedish classrooms, making a ban ineffective. Following this line of reasoning, should we shift our perspective and begin learning how to incorporate technology into our daily lives, including at home and at school, to positively promote children’s development, rather than focusing on the negative consequences of technology?
What Does Social Media Do to Children’s Development?
important aspect to consider in this debate is how smartphones are used. Next to texting, calling, and googling, children have easier access than ever to social media platforms. Have you ever watched the documentary “the social dilemma”? In case you did not, I’ll tell you my personal key takeaways: First, social media is designed to be addictive. Second, suicide rates, particularly among girls, have been rising, since social media is popular. Third, our children are at risk! Heavy stuff, right? Let’s try understanding how social media is designed to be addictive. When users receive a “like” on their Instagram photo, their brain releases a burst of dopamine and sends it along so-called reward pathways, making the social media users feel happy. Our brains crave that pleasure response, thus users keep on “pulling the handle”. Further, social media uses alerts for us to keep coming back, and lastly, using the infinite scrolling feature, our brain does not know when to stop (Fox, 2018). Hence, social media has the power to make us all addicted. On top of that, young brains are especially vulnerable to social media, because between the age of 10 and 12 their brains get extra sensitive to attention and admiration from others. As a result, social media use is more stressful for the youth compared to adults who have a fixed sense of self which relies less on the feedback from their peers (Abrams, 2022). Although the statement that “technology (including social media) can rewire our children’s brain” has such a cognitive component, there is not enough research to draw any conclusions about the effect of social media on cognitive development specifically. Instead, research has focused on how social media effects the well-being of children and teenager, but here no general conclusions can be made since there is such a large variation due to individual differences (Orben, 2020). Some children may suffer from using social media, while others may not.
What Can I Do as a Parent to Prevent My Child From the Worst?
Before answering this question, I want to debunk the myth of technologies rewiring children’s brain. It is very, very unlikely that technology can rewire children’s brains. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is one of the largest long-term studies of brain development in children throughout adolescence ever conducted in the United States. Using their data, it can be concluded that screen media activity (including watching tv, playing video games and using social media) is neither particular “bad for the brain” nor “bad for brain related functioning” (Paulus et al., 2019). Thus, we certainly do not have to compare the “threat of technology” to the threat of climate change like Susan Greenfield suggests.
“So, my child can use technology unlimited?” No! “But how many hours should I allow my child to spend in front of screens?” Probably, you want to hear a final answer, like two hours a day at the age of seven. I must disappoint you; the answer is (like so many times): it depends! The effect of technology on children’s development cannot be depicted as black and white as media usually does, it is much more complex than that. Since children are users of the technology, it matters who they are, how they feel towards the technology and how they react to it.
Going beyond the effect of technology on cognitive development of children, we can find more concrete answers about how much technology is beneficial and detrimental when looking at children’s well-being. The “goldilocks effect” states that using technology can be beneficial for children to some extent, while (as most of the times in life) too little or too much can have negative effects on their mental well-being (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2017). Accordingly, when socioeconomic status was taken into consideration, a PISA study revealed that teenagers who said they would spend more than six hours a day online outside of school had lower life satisfaction and performed worse in all subjects assessed by PISA. To sum it up, balance is key when it comes to technology – neither too little nor too much is desirable.
Before I let you go, I would like to provide you with some tips and relating topics that are worth to look into. You can use these recommendations to help you minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of technology for you and your child.
- Teach media literacy, which is the ability to critically consume and create media. This article helps you to understand your role and the role of schools to properly teach media literacy and why it is so important.
- Ask your child questions about their technology/social media use and set aside some time to go through what’s on the phone together.
- Be a role model. Maintain a healthy relationship with technology yourself and avoid technoference as much as possible.
- Be careful with using any technology as your family’s go-to soothing device. Learn more about this here.
As we come to the end of this post, I hope you’ve learned three things: Firstly, technology is not a monster and cannot rewire your children’s brain, instead use it for the better. In addition, how technology effects cognitive development of children depends on so many factors including the children themselves. Last but not least, always be very critical about what you read on the internet and teach your children to do the same!
Welcome critical readers!
Here you can check all the sources on which this article’s reasoning is based!
Abrams, Z. (2022). Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media. American Psychological Association. In.
Amez, S., & Baert, S. (2020). Smartphone use and academic performance: A literature review. International Journal of Educational Research, 103, 101618.
Beland, L.-P., & Murphy, R. (2016). Ill communication: technology, distraction & student performance. Labour Economics, 41, 61-76.
Beneito, P., & Vicente-Chirivella, Ó. (2020). Banning mobile phones at schools: Effects on bullying and academic performance. Unpublished document.
Christakis, D. A., Ramirez, J. S. B., Ferguson, S. M., Ravinder, S., & Ramirez, J.-M. (2018). How early media exposure may affect cognitive function: A review of results from observations in humans and experiments in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9851-9858.
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Kostyrka-Allchorne, K., Cooper, N. R., & Simpson, A. (2017). The relationship between television exposure and children’s cognition and behaviour: A systematic review. Developmental Review, 44, 19-58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.12.002
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Orben, A. (2020). Teenagers, screens and social media: a narrative review of reviews and key studies. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 55(4), 407-414.
Paulus, M. P., Squeglia, L. M., Bagot, K., Jacobus, J., Kuplicki, R., Breslin, F. J., Bodurka, J., Morris, A. S., Thompson, W. K., & Bartsch, H. (2019). Screen media activity and brain structure in youth: Evidence for diverse structural correlation networks from the ABCD study. Neuroimage, 185, 140-153.
Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2017). A large-scale test of the goldilocks hypothesis: quantifying the relations between digital-screen use and the mental well-being of adolescents. Psychological science, 28(2), 204-215.
Rees, N. (2021). The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index. UNICEF.
Sauce, B., Liebherr, M., Judd, N., & Klingberg, T. (2022). The impact of digital media on children’s intelligence while controlling for genetic differences in cognition and socioeconomic background. Scientific reports, 12(1), 1-14.
Smahel, D., Machakova, H., Mascheroni, G., Dedkova, L., Staksrud, E., Ólafsson, K., Livingstone, S., and Hasebrink, U. . (2020). EU Kids Online 2020: Survey results from 19 countries (EU Kids Online Issue.
Soares, P. S. M., de Oliveira, P. D., Wehrmeister, F. C., Menezes, A. M. B., & Gonçalves, H. (2021). Screen time and working memory in adolescents: A longitudinal study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 137, 266-272.
Statista. (2022, Nov, 17, 2022). Children and media in the U.S. – Statistics & Facts. Statista.
Walsh, J. J., Barnes, J. D., Tremblay, M. S., & Chaput, J.-P. (2020). Associations between duration and type of electronic screen use and cognition in US children. Computers in Human Behavior, 108, 106312.
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