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Neuropsychological Impact of Technology on Children

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Technology has become an essential part of society in the 21st century, used by all ages, and for all purposes. A survey by ABS in 2018 found that 87% of Australians (>15 years of age) are Internet users, with the highest proportion of Internet users, 98%, being those aged between 15-17. Moreover, ABS also reports that around 97% of households with persons under the age of 15 has access to the Internet. Around 91% of Australians use laptops, computers, and smartphones. The average Australian spends an average of nearly 7 hours each day on these devices (Ernst & Young, Australia, 2017). It can be assumed that technology is integral in our society today, and for the next generations to come.

Over the past few decades, the use of technology has also been on a rise in the educational system. Devices such as computers and laptops have been embedded in high schools through government-led programs such as the Digital Education Revolution (DER) reform package 2008–13 and school ‘Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs’. This was implemented in an effort to increase information and communication technology literacy for teachers and students in a rising digital world (Australian National Audit Office, 2011). Primary schools have also begun to integrate technology as a part of their learning from kindergarten onwards, under the newly implemented science and technology syllabus (NESA, 2017). Technology has become such a vital component of Australian schools today and is so often used with children, hence, it is critical to acknowledge and identify any effects it has on children’s cognition.

There is a wide variety of technology used in our digital world today, such as computers, phones, television, gaming devices and reading tools. All these devices, depending on content, attentional needs and other factors will have different neuropsychological impacts, that is behavioral and cognitive changes, in children.

This paper will look at the effects the use of technology has on brain structures, and the cognitive and behavioral implications it may have on children.

Changes to Brain Functioning and Structures

Brain functions often change according to the behaviors and experiences of an individual (Hiscock, 1998). The use of technology has been seen to alter brain structures and functioning, especially in children, as it is the formative years of development of their brains (Bavelier, Green, & Dye, 2010).

Gray Matter

Gray matter is the collection of neuronal cell bodies in the brain. There is some correlation between gray matter volume (GMV) and cognition, as proposed by the research, showing that a reduction in GMV, as a result of normal ageing, had a causal relationship with a decline in cognitive processes (Ramanoël et al., 2018).

Research has found that the excessive use of technology results in gray matter atrophy (loss of tissue volume) in various parts of the brain, specifically, in areas of the brain which are involved in higher order processing and functioning (Wang et al., 2015). This study assessed adolescents with Internet Gaming Addiction (IAD), used the Internet for ~7 hours per day, and presented that the reduction of GMV can be associated with their impaired cognitive ability, measured by the Stroop Color and Word Test, in comparison to healthy adolescents, who used the Internet for ~2-3 hours per day. Other areas of the brain were also discovered to have been smaller in GMV, such as the insula, which is known to be involved in emotional control, social interactions and empathy (Uddin, Nomi, Hébert-Seropian, Ghaziri, & Boucher, 2017).

On the other hand, another study looking at the impact of video games on plasticity in the hippocampus discovered that both increases and reductions in gray matter within the hippocampus can occur in the brains of individuals who engage in video games (West et al., 2017). This is thought to be dependent on the navigation strategies used by the individual and the genre of the game (West et al., 2017).

Additionally, a study with ~25-year-old participants, found that using more than one technology at once, may result in gray matter atrophy in the anterior cingulate gyrus (Loh, Kanai, & Watanabe, 2014), an area of the brain that is involved in the self-regulation of emotions as well as cognition (Stevens, Hurley, Taber, & Hayman, 2011). Loh et al. 2014 study identified that individuals who would often media multitask have poorer cognitive control performance and socio-emotional deficits in comparison to their control group, presumably due to the changes in their brain structure.

Hence, studies have shown that the excessive use of technology in adolescents results in gray matter atrophy in various parts of the brain, particularly areas that are involved in behavior and cognition, including the insula and AAC. However, as of now, there is inconclusive literature on the effect of video games on gray matter due to its wide range of effects and large determinants such as individual differences.

White Matter

White matter (WM) structures act as the communication system of the brain by carrying nerve impulses from one neuron to another (Seikel, King & Drumright, 2010). Adolescents with IAD was found to have lower fractional anisotropy in major white matter pathways than normal Internet users, as examined through diffuser tensor imaging (Lin et al., 2012). These major white matter pathways included the orbito-frontal WM, cingulum, commissural fibers of the corpus callosum, internal and external capsule and more. Such areas are linked to emotional processing, executive attention and decision making (Lin et al., 2012). It was concluded that these WM deficits are correlated with behavioral changes in individuals, including those examined in a study identifying an increase in emotional stability in excessive internet users (Yang, Choe, Baity, Lee & Cho, 2005).

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Effects on Cognitive Neuropsychology

Cognitive neuropsychology encompasses many aspects including learning and memory, attention, visuo-spatial memory, behavior and information processing. However, there are many factors in our world which may alter these cognitive abilities.

‘Technology’ in itself is a very broad topic. Many factors should be considered when contemplating the cognitive neuropsychological impacts technology use has on children such as context, cognitive functions being used, and the type of technology used (Lodge & Harrison, 2019). The effect on brain structures and functioning has been discussed generally with the use of Internet and technology. As we look at neuropsychological effects, we will focus on one aspect of technology, that is the use of technology for games.

Games

A meta-analysis summarizing literature on the effect of playing action video games on children’s cognition has found that the general agreement among research is that individuals who play action video games show better cognitive abilities than those who play little to no video games (Bediou, Adams, Mayer, Tipton, Green, & Bavelier, 2018).

Attention

Attention is the ability to filter specific stimuli, and is a complex concept which is also involved in learning and memory. The process in which attention is attained can rely on an individual’s interest, where they are looking, modality of input and output etc. (Styles, 2006). Technology demands attention from us whether it is for the use of social media or games. But how does it actually effect a child’s attention?

Green and Bavelier (2003) posed the question of whether action video games influences attention for individuals aged between 18-23 years old. They found that individuals who played action video games had increased ability to ignore distracting stimuli (selective attention), better visual spatial attention and enhanced ability to attend more than one task at once (divided attention), in comparison to non-gamers (Green & Bavelier, 2003). This study monitored their experimental group through placing a minimum standard on the hours of gameplay per week as well as providing a number of specific games to play over a 6-month period, increasing reliability to their study. However, this study does not use assessments with psychometric properties, hence does not take into consideration internal differences of each individual involved which may potentially cause the differences in attentional abilities.

Moreover, a study by Trisolini, Petilli and Daini (2018) found that adolescents, with an average age of 15, who played action video games, had poorer performance on sustained attention tasks, the ability to maintain attention over an extended period of time, in comparison to non-gamers. There are limitations to this study, including the lack of consideration of factors in their experimental group which may affect attention, such as age, gender, demographics and intrinsic capacities (Tremolada, Taverna & Bonichini, 2019).

Overall, both these studies suggest that there are several areas of attention which are affected by the use of gaming technology in adolescents, in specific, action video games. To increase reliability and validity to these studies, factors affecting attention should be taken into consideration when choosing an experimental and control group. An increase in similarity to these factors may allow for greater accuracy to test results.

Learning and Memory

Learning and memory are cognitive functions which are closely related. Learning is the ability to gain new knowledge through study, experience or teaching (Barron et al., 2015). There are many things that can affect our learning including quality and quantity of instruction, individual characteristics or even home environment (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1990). Memory, on the other hand, is the ability to retain new learnt information and can be subdivided into two categories, short-term (working) memory and long-term memory (Rose, Myerson, Roediger, & Hale, S. 2010). Short-term (working) memory is the ability to store information temporarily and to manipulate and use that information (Rose et al., 2010). Long-term memory is a record of information or past events which are stored for an extended period of time, in which some things may be lost while others remain (Rose et al., 2010).

A meta-analysis comparing the benefits of computer gaming and traditional teaching methods found that there are overall higher cognitive gains and better attitudes towards learning with games (Vogel et al., 2006). This supports the theory that enhancing attitudes and motivation allows for better learning outcomes (Baltra, Cassidy, Prensky, as cited in Vogel et al., 2006, p. 237). Hence, the engaging, interactive and motivating nature of games (Hromek, Roffey, & Hromek, 2009) may be the reason for increased learning efficiency for students. Another study found that there is a correlation with increased attentional abilities of video game players and their learning (Bavelier, Green, Pouget, & Schrater, 2012). This study found that video games may support learning by generalizing attentional skills gained from within a game to the real world (Bavelier, Green, Pouget, & Schrater, 2012).

There are a few factors which may assist the generalization of learning (Deveau, Jaeggi, Zordan, Phung & Seitz, 2015). This includes using motivational tasks (Shibata et al, as cited by Deveau et al., 2015, p. 2) with consistent reinforcements and feedbacks (Seitz and Wataname, as cited by Deveau et al., 2015, p. 2), which is the nature of most video games. Therefore, these studies suggest that learning may be enhanced with the use of video games by increasing motivation and supporting better attitudes towards learning.

Conclusion

There is definitely an impact on children’s attention, and learning and memory. Many studies have been used to research the impact of technology, in particular video games, on these 3 aspects of cognitive skills in children. The research completed reveals that there are two different impacts according to the extent of gameplay, in moderation or to the point of addiction and excessive gaming. The studies used in this paper agree that there are positive impacts on all 3 aspects of cognitive skills when games are played in moderation. Where excessive gaming and internet addiction forms, this leads to a different conclusion. The research done concludes that excessive gaming or addiction may potentially lead to negative impacts on overall cognitive skills of children, as suggested by the brain structure and functional changes which occur, as discussed in the paper.

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Neuropsychological Impact of Technology on Children. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/neuropsychological-impact-of-technology-on-children/
“Neuropsychological Impact of Technology on Children.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/neuropsychological-impact-of-technology-on-children/
Neuropsychological Impact of Technology on Children. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/neuropsychological-impact-of-technology-on-children/> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2022].
Neuropsychological Impact of Technology on Children [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Dec 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/neuropsychological-impact-of-technology-on-children/
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