If someone asked you to picture technology changing (or rewiring) someone’s brain, what would you see? Chances are the first thing that you’d come up with would be sci-fi-style mind control beams. Perhaps you would see robotic neurosurgeons at work (already a thing actually). Or maybe cyborg like neural enhancements!
The reality of the situation is a lot simpler. And possibly, a bit more scary. Many forms of technology that we use every day are shaping the way we think – permanently.
Start ‘em young
These days, it’s not uncommon to see very young children (even babies and toddlers) using smartphones or tablets for entertainment and many parents turn to educational apps to support their little ones’ developing cognitive skills.
However too much screen time can impede rather than foster development. One study suggested a strong link between handheld screen time and language development delay. Specifically, a 49% increased risk of expressive speech delay for each 30-minute increase in screen time.i That’s why moderation is recommended by many specialists in child development.
Adults not immune
Digital media technologies can have a massive impact on our ability to focus. Just think of the last time you tried to have a conversation with your partner while their favourite show was on in the background. Or tried to talk to a teenager with their face buried in social media.
This impact has been studied from a variety of perspectives. For example, using a mobile phone whilst driving increases your risk of a crash four-fold, irrespective of whether a hands-free kit is used.ii It’s not just the fact that they distract us. It’s the fact that we feel so strongly about our devices, because of the emotions they stir in us, that we prioritise them over other stimuli. That means everything from other people, to tasks at work, to signs of hazards on the road.
Changing our language
Social media and digital communication have caused a huge shift in the way we express ourselves, not just online but in our face-to-face interactions too. Have you ever caught someone trying to add meta content to a conversation by saying “hashtag (word/phrase)”, or speak in online abbreviations (saying ‘lol’ instead of actually laughing)? None of this is intrinsically bad, it can, however, have negative ramifications in certain contexts. For example, internet speak may not always be appropriate in the office. Moreover, our reliance on abbreviations, tweets, gifs and memes (anything that makes an argument in as few words as possible) might result in a reduction in our willingness to engage with nuanced, complex ideas, and find common ground when we disagree.iii
In one ear, out the other
There are a few critical ways that technology affects memory. For one, information overload makes it harder to retain information. Our brain needs time to take everything in, decide what’s important, and file it away correctly.
Some theorists also say that the internet is becoming like an ‘external hard drive’ for people.ivIn other words, the idea is if we know we can always just look something up, we won’t be bothered to remember it. This idea tends to apply to small details, rather than the general gist of a piece of information. So you might be able to remember the general plot of a movie, but not the names of characters or actors.v
What does this mean?
Unless your use of technology is having a negative effect on your relationships, work, or personal safety, you probably don’t need to worry too much. If you still want to guard against some of the effects you’ve read about, start by aiming for less screen time. Perhaps you could put your phone down while you go out for a meal with your partner, or when you are travelling to work, take the time to look out the window of the bus, train or ferry you are on. Or you could take a real book on holiday, instead of your iPad or device. The most important thing is that you arrive at a balance that allows you to feel present in the moment and less stressed.