Screens and neurons. On the impact of technology on our brain

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We talk to Gary Small about the impact of smartphones on our brains, technology education and American ways of dealing with the dangers of the digital world.

Gary Small – professor of psychiatry at the University of California, director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the Institute of Neurology and Behavioral Sciences and co-author of the book „iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind”.

Andżelika Serwatka: One of the greatest concerns with which the world grapples nowadays is answering the question regarding modern technological development. We ask ourselves how that technology is affecting us, humans, how it changes our lives and society – especially the youngest members of that society. Coming from that perspective, we often find ourselves asking how modern devices, such as smartphones, are changing a child’s brain?

Garry Small: As our brains evolve, specific neurons develop depending on the activities that stimulate them. Therefore, engaging in certain tasks, such as using a smartphone, will strengthen particular neurons. However, this improvement comes at a cost, as other neurons may weaken due to the lack of stimulation. From birth to adolescence, significant changes occur in the brain. One of it is process called as pruning. The brain “prunes” synaptic connections, which are not anymore in use, and instead builds other connections between brain cells, neurons, based on the type of stimulation and necessity. A child’s brain is highly receptive to mental experiences, leading to the development of numerous synaptic connections in relevant areas. But what if these mental tasks were replaced by other activities? How would this substitution affect the pruning process? If technology overstimulates a child’s brain, the regions responsible for mental experiences might not develop fully.

Another factor to consider is empathy. How can one understand another person’s emotional point of view? It is not something innate; rather, it is something that children learn. When they are constantly engrossed in their phones, they miss out on the opportunity to make eye contact, connect, and learn how to interpret nonverbal cues. Moreover, the frontal part of the brain, often referred to as the „thinking brain”, is also very important in this matter. This region is not fully developed during childhood and adolescence; its development continues until early twenties. It plays a key role in problem-solving and memory functions. This leads to the question of how extensive exposure to smartphones might hinder the development of empathy and problem-solving abilities.

When me and my wife wrote „iBrain”, we were delving into emotional intelligence and social intelligence. Emotional intelligence is empathy and the ability to understand others, while social intelligence is about how well one connects within groups. To explore this, we conducted a study on preteens, around 13 years old. We took them to a nature camp for 5 days. Through all that period there was no screen time for them. After 5 days, we compared them to a control group that continued using phones, computers, and television during the same duration. We tested in both groups Emotional and Social Intelligence. First we had shown them pictures of emotional face expressions and made them interpret the emotions. Then we had shown them video clips with filmed social interactions and asked them to analyse what is going on. What we found out is that after 5 days being away from technology there is a significant improvement in Emotional and Social Intelligence. Those are good news, because as far as we know it is not a prominent damage happening in the brain due to overuse of technology. The bad news is that technology is hard to control.

We can recall the words of the Polish writer Stanisław Lem: „Every technology has its dark side, which is unpredictable at first.” We raise the question about this dark side because the media often attempts to persuade us that only the positive aspect exists. You’ve already mentioned certain studies, but if we were to select studies that best illustrate the detrimental effects of technology on children’s brains, which ones would stand out?

Well… There exist numerous studies on this topic, and it’s challenging to pinpoint couple out of them. However, if I had to make a selection, I would draw examples from my own book. Your question reminds me of a study, not particularly focused on children but on adults. We were interested in understanding the brain’s behaviour during its first online searches. We compared this group with individuals who were already familiar with online searching. What we discovered was that individuals who regularly search online exhibit more neuroactivity compared to those who were searching online for the first time. The next part of experiment involved guiding those who had just learned how to search online and make them practice this new skill for a week. Astonishingly, after just one week of practice, there was a significant surge in neuroactivity. So, what does this tell us? So yes, there is a dark side of technology, but it also offers us a bright side. I mean, just searching online can be a form of neuro-exercise.

I’m currently the head of largest neuropsychotherapy in New Jersey, which aims to establish a digital mental health center. What we do is creating certain apps and video games, which helps people to solve their mental problems. And this is a way to provide greater access to health care and how to better monitor heath problems. So there is a positive side of digital technology.

You are saying that we should not overlook the positives of digital technology. But what about some institution – like schools, corporations – which enforce bans on smartphone usage within their premises? For instance, on July 15 2023, which was the International Day without a Mobile Phone, the Civil Affairs Institute sent a letter to the Minister of Education of Poland asking for introducing a top-down ban on the use of smartphones in Polish schools. How do you view that idea? And how does it work in the US?

Actually, I’m not entirely aware of the functioning of smartphone bans in schools across the entire US. However, it’s evident that some schools, particularly private ones, have indeed implemented such bans. Generally speaking, I do agree that enforcing such bans is a positive step. Yet, I don’t possess a definitive answer regarding the specific age up to which the use of smartphones by children should be regulated. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that certain limitations should be established.

Furthermore, this issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the resulting social isolation. After lockdowns children are not on a mental stage they should be right now. After all, schools is not just learning certain subject, but it is also learning how to get along with other kids and adults. And that is not the only problem. What about cyber bulling, technology addition, learning violent behaviours from video games?

Usually, discussions about smartphones tend to concentrate only around children. However, the impact extends beyond this group; it affects the entire society.

For instance, since 2014 the Civil Affairs Institute has been running educational courses „Kuźnia Kampanierów” for community fighting for the common good. During the program, there is a prohibition on smartphone usage. Coming from that perspective I would like to ask you what do you think about the use of digital technologies in schools during lessons – as sometimes we are using digital technologies as source of information?

Exactly, there are two sides to the issue. I don’t know if an outright ban is always the best answer, but perhaps having a conversation about how to use digital technology responsibly is a better approach.

After publishing our book „I-brain” we started visiting schools to give presentations on these topics. We also organized a challenge for children to distance themselves from digital technology for one day. Most of the students were unable to do that. And then we held a panel discussion on this. Engaging them in such a conversation is quite intriguing. They discussed the positives and negatives of technology, how to use it responsibly, and how to distinguish true information found online from misinformation. I believe this was very helpful for them.

You think it more important to educated parents or students regarding this issue?

It is both. I believe that both sides have to be equally engaged. Educating about dangers of technology and promoting self-control makes much more sense than only banning technology without any reflection. Although teaching self control it is usually difficult. The human brain craves novelty. It is stimulating our network and increases dopamine levels in our brain. That is why people are becoming addicted to technology. Shortly saying, what technology does is taking everything what is human, escalating it and making it more intense. It starts with gambling, sex, shopping…

So we can say that there are certain businesses and corporations which take special advantage from that process?

For sure they benefit a lot from digitalisation.

But who benefits the most? And who loses the most? Especially when we view digitization through the lenses of education.

Well… in a way, we are all benefiting. As scientists, I can only say that digital development is greatly helping us to enhance rapid communication. We all also benefit financially from that process. Certainly, technology companies benefit tremendously, but we need to remember that it is not just them who gain all the advantages. In fact, the entire world can benefit from digitalization. On the other hand, we can all also be harmed by it – hacking, losing personal data, smartphone addiction and losing genuine connections with people.

Neil Postman, in the book „Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology”, observes that individuals who resist technopoly and seek genuine connections with other person “they expect that person to be in the same room” as they are. These individuals are also the ones „who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.” What you think of that approach?

Well, it is clear that face-to-face interactions differ from those conducted via internet, even with the camera turned on. Physical presence, video chat, phone call, texting… There are different ways to communicate – and it is not bad itself. The real problem is that people are not thoughtful about which way is the best at certain moments.

In terms of this issue, how does the human brain function differently when comparing face-to-face conversations to conversations conducted through a camera?

If we did a scanning we would see different parts of the brain being activated. Communication is not just visual. It is using all of our senses so that it affect differently our emotional intelligence.

We’re arriving at the most crucial question. Given all this knowledge, how can we safeguard the brain from the negative aspects of technology?

I will repeat it one more time: educating people is of utmost importance. Teaching them how to be self-reflective, how to strike a balance between the real self and the virtual self – particularly in the context of the post-pandemic era. We must be mindful of how we communicate, how long we use devices and who is ultimately in control – we or technology?

Andżelika Serwatka

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