How does the age of digitalisation affect young brains?

In the parts of the world where digital devices (laptops, mobile phones, tablets, etc.) are readily available, it’s not unusual that young people spend eight hours or even more interacting with a screen. According to research, the number is increasing still.

Schools around the world are also embracing the digital trend. New technologies bring great opportunities to classrooms. Information retrieval has already been taken to a whole new level with the no sweat straightforwardness of a simple internet search. Audio-visual content can swiftly take students to places they might never have a chance to visit live. Teachers can store and evaluate data online, saving a great deal of archive shelf space. And so forth.

As EdTech enthusiasts we must ask ourselves how this development affects the students. How does the human brain react to the snowballing digital pursuit?

The brain reaches it’s maturity at around the age of 25. This does not mean that learning new things becomes much more difficult after 25.

What it does imply, though, is that before the brain has reached its physiological maturity, it’s much more prone to be affected by different types of influence. This is why educators should be aware of how the media used in school influence the maturing brain.

Emerging research evidence suggests that the major influence of digitalisation on the young brains is likely to be mediated by sleep.

Or the shortage of it, more precisely. It is very common that young people play, watch videos or use social media (actually typically all of this interlaced) in the late hours, before going to bed. Both the screen light and the stimulating content have been shown to deteriorate the quality of sleep. Many young people also indisputably sleep less because of the digital gateways at hand.

Having said that, the school work is not what most frequently keeps the youth awake till late. Perhaps the evidence that playing video games can intensify attention and reduce reaction times is more relevant from an educational perspective?

Even if a solid body of evidence shows this to indeed be the case, there’s minimal proof that this would translate into any skills valuable in everyday life. On the other hand, it has been noticed that ample gaming increases feelings of aggression, no matter whether the game content is violent or aggressive or not. The repetitive exacting situations, and especially failings, lead to frequent emotional outbursts of frustration.

The biggest digital threats seem to be slightly different for girls and boys. Something is apparently going wrong if a person no longer feels in control of digital media use, or even rather controlled by the digital environment. A notable change in behaviour (e.g. reduced time spent with friends, mood changes, not taking proper care of oneself) is always an alarm signal. For boys, such extreme causes are typically brought about by excessive gaming. For girls, a more typical consequences is social anxiety caused by over-emotionality or over-openness in social media unmatched by real-life experience.

So, what is the conclusion educational technology designers and educators should draw from this fresh evidence? Firstly, as teaching the complexity of life-skills is a key responsibility of all schools — especially in this time of information societies — they should have the competence to teach digital skills. Importantly, digital skills are not only about how to use different kinds of software and hardware, but also about how to use them wisely. How to put the gadgets aside at least one hour before going to bed in order to ensure enough of good-quality sleep to allow normal brain development to take place, for example.

Secondly, as innovation, making impact, and eventually also ensuring a future for the human kind in the digital era are essentially dependent on bringing the digital and social skills together, it has to be made sure that educational technologies support this objective. Furthermore, whereas digital skills are valuable tools for making a positive impact, social skills are also an end in themselves.

If learning emotional skills and understanding as well as feeling more empathetic towards others are encouraged in education, this will obviously serve to increase human engagement both inside and outside the school context. For the youth, the closest social networks of family and school strongly define “familiar” and “ordinary”. Film and virtual reality are prominent digital means to expand those zones of convenience and comprehension. Accompanied with discussion analysis and applied content creation projects with fellow students, the digital and non-digital can form seamless learning experiences where different types of media and activity add value to one another.

Working with developing brains comes with a great responsibility — and potential. Imagine a world full of brains having been supplied by ample nutrients of empathy, innovation and understanding.


Katri Meriläinen

The writer is a teacher, teacher-educator, educational content designer and edutech psychology geek.

The text echoes the recent neurocognitive research evidence presented at a research seminar held at the University of Helsinki in March 2017.

The University of Helsinki in Finland is one of the institutions making cutting-edge neurocognitive research on the effects of digitalisation on the developing brain.