Having trouble sleeping? “It’s probably because of the light from your devices.”
Having trouble concentrating? “Probably because of the Internet.”
Having trouble remembering things? “Probably because of Google.”
Obesity, depression, loneliness? “Technology’s fault.”
For years, the rise of technology has been credited and blamed for a variety of improvements and ills. Proponents argue that when used well, technology can aid education, brain function, motor skills, visual skills, and creativity. On the other hand, opponents argue that technology is rewiring our brains, rendering them incapable of independent function, problem solving, and memory. But is technology really “rewiring” our brains on a neurological level, or have we simply changed our habits as technology becomes increasingly more accessible and pervasive in our daily lives?
Most people seem to believe the former. In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a piece detailing his concerns: despite having been a “voracious book reader,” he found that as the Internet became increasingly embedded in his daily life, it became harder and harder for him to concentrate for more than two or three pages, describing the feeling as “dragging his wayward brain” back to the text, worrying that technology was changing the way he was thinking (1). Studies claimed that human attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to 8 since 2000 (2) while Pew Research Center surveys found that 87% of teachers worried that technology was creating an easily distracted generation of students (3), raising suspicions that technology might be rewiring our brains on a neurological level. Studies attributed rising rates of childhood obesity, depression, and loneliness to increased screen time (4), with one researcher even arguing that social media and technology were causing users to regress to the mentality of a three-year old, crave constant, immediate gratification, and lose the ability to empathize, think for themselves, and communicate (5, 6).
While it’s not entirely wrong that technology is “rewiring” us, it isn’t entirely correct either. Technology probably is “rewiring” our brains by changing the way we consume and interact with information such as being prone to skimming. However, there is not enough knowledge about the brain’s wiring to begin with to answer that in a literal, biological sense (6). Furthermore, the results of studies tend to be less clean cut than they sound; much like how different types of food affect our bodies differently, the things we consume through the Internet also lead to different effects, and while there is research condemning the Internet as a whole, many studies only dealt with the amount of time spent on devices, and not the variables surrounding the subjects outside of the usage. For example, while it may have seemed that children who spend more time watching TV would have lower language learning skills, it was found that children who were more prone to longer periods of TV usage were from lower-income families and or mothers with lower levels of education (7). While it seemed that technology was causing depression, it was unclear whether people who were more depressed were more likely to turn to their devices as a distraction and means of support or if the ready access to news and other information led to higher rates of depression. In the same vein, it is unclear whether attention spans were decreasing because those attracted to the variety of functions devices offer were originally prone to lack of focus or if the illusion of multi-tasking competence technology offers leads to decreased concentration. This suggests that many of the effects correlated with technology were merely that—correlational—rather than a result of causation, and that as a whole, our personal dispositions and circumstances are better indicators of how technology will affect us.
Even if technology doesn’t literally rewire our brains, it doesn’t hurt to remember that in excess, anything can be harmful. In the end, the effects of technology, like any other tool, is neither simply “good” or bad by itself, but rather dependent on how we use it.
- Carr, N. (2008, August). Is Google Making Us Stupid. The Atlantic. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
- Borreli, L. (2015, May 14). Human Attention Span Shortens To 8 Seconds Due To Digital Technology: 3 Ways To Stay Focused. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.medicaldaily.com/human-attention-span-shortens-8-seconds-due-digital-technology-3-ways-stay-focused-333474
- Jeffries, D. (2013, March 11). Is technology and the internet reducing pupils' attention spans? Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/mar/11/technology-internet-pupil-attention-teaching
- Rosen, L. et al. (2014). Media and technology use predicts ill-being among children, preteens and teenagers independent of the negative health impacts of exercise and eating habits. Computers in Human Behavior,35, 364-375. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.036
- Hymas, C. (2018, August 05). Social media is making children regress to mentality of three-year-olds, says top brain scientist. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/05/social-media-regressing-children-mentality-three-year-olds-says/
- Wilmer, H., H., Sherman, E., L., Chein, & M., J. (2017, April 03). Smartphones and Cognition: A Review of Research Exploring the Links between Mobile Technology Habits and Cognitive Functioning. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00605/full
- Pasquinelli, E. (2018, September 11). Are Digital Devices Altering Our Brains? Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-digital-devices-altering-our-brains/
- Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., & Dye, M. W. (2010, September 09). Children, wired: For better and for worse. Retrieved August 13, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3170902/