By: Dhruvin Patel
The good and the bad
The human brain is the most complex structure in the body. Its journey begins in the womb and continues throughout the life of a person. However, it is during the early stages of life that the brain develops the most, and its effects can last a lifetime.
The human brain consists of around 100 billion neurons at birth, most of which have yet to connect to networks (University of Maine). By the age of three, a child’s brain can create more than a million neuron connections per second–a progression that’s nothing short of remarkable (Zero to Three).
The surrounding environment crucially influences children’s brain development. With gadgets permeating the modern environment, technology has undeniably affected children’s mental development, both positively and negatively. How and to what extent are essential questions that must be asked by society as a whole, and not just parents.
The evolution of toys and entertainment is the first place to start when looking at how gadgets can modify a child’s environment. In the past, childhood activities consisted of playing hide and seek, riding bikes, and make-believe; the canvas of playtime was so blank that children became experts at invention.
However, the modern child does not have such tools for play. Instead, most outdoor games have been replaced by their digital counterparts. Not only can children play sports or find treasures on screens, but these games also create imaginary worlds for children to inhabit.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’s guidelines for children’s media use recommends less screen time because “they desperately need more free time to ignite their imaginations, develop a sense of wonder, and discover their passions and purpose.”
On the flip side, video games prime the brain to develop higher visual-spatial reasoning capabilities and faster reaction times. Research conducted on adolescent girls who play video games have found physical increases of cortex thickness in two related regions (BMC Research Notes).
In the past, children spent considerable time taking part in activities that required active participation, such as reading. It was not only possible, but necessary, to develop and sustain focus on one task. Further demand for recollection by such activities would prove to be sufficient stimuli for memory development.
Typical activities in a modern child’s environment, such as streaming shows on Netflix or gaming, encourage constant distraction. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that we become increasingly reliant on “the Internet to support and extend our memory” with more use, which is known as ‘cognitive offloading.’
But according to some researchers, this decrease in memory retention in children may not be all bad. They found that not having to remember information frees up the brain for higher process functions, such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem-solving (Psychology Today).
Many video games and mobile apps are built around routine and reward interaction. The rewards can be the number of ‘likes’ or followers on social media, or high scores in a video game. Dopamine and oxytocin, which are associated with neurological reward systems, are released each time the interaction occurs (International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine).
This fact, paired with the devices’ deliberately-structured interfaces that encourage routine engagement, leads to faster and more severe addiction, especially among children. Research has shown that amygdala-striatal systems are more sensitive in children who frequently use social media or play video games, which is indicative of higher susceptibility to addiction (Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging).
Technology has played a significant role in the inactivity of children, and decreased interaction with their physical environment can delay sensory development (Moving to Learn). Sensory stimulation by gadgets is limited to audio and visual engagement, typically occurring chaotically. However, there’s a silver lining, as such stimuli are used to aid sensory development in autistic children (Indiana Resource Center for Autism).
Like most technology, devices are intended to benefit their users. We must, however, recognize that their effects have not played out exactly as planned. With knowledge of the influence of technology on children’s brain development, informed and balanced decisions can be made about their future.
About the Author
Dhruvin is an optometrist and entrepreneur encouraging a healthier relationship with tech. Since receiving a grant from City University, he has built Ocushield into a globally-distributed and MHRA-rated product, establishing himself as an authority on blue light.