With so many of us now constantly tethered to digital technology via our smartphones, computers, tablets, and even watches, there is a huge experiment underway that we didn’t exactly sign up for.
Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, even Vox (if we’re being completely honest) are competing for our attention, and they’re doing so savvily, knowing the psychological buttons to push to keep us coming back for more. It’s now common for American kids to get a smartphone by age 10. That’s a distraction device they carry in their pockets all the time.
The more adapted to the attention economy we become, the more we fear it could be hurting us. In Silicon Valley, we’re told more parents are limiting their kids’ screen time and even writing no-screen clauses into their contracts with nannies. Which makes us wonder: Do they know something we don’t?
If it’s true that constant digital distractions are changing our cognitive functions for the worse — leaving many of us more scatterbrained, more prone to lapses in memory, and more anxious — it means we’re living through a profound transformation of human cognition. Or could it be that we’re overreacting, like people in the past who panicked about new technologies such as the printing press or the radio?
To find out, we decided to ask experts: How is our constant use of digital technologies affecting our brain health?
The answers, you’ll see, are far from certain or even consistent. There’s a lot not yet known about the connection between media use and brain health in adults and kids. The evidence that does exist on multitasking and memory, for instance, suggests a negative correlation, but a causal link is still elusive. Still, many of the researchers and human behavior experts we spoke with still feel an unease about where the constant use of digital technology is taking us.
“We’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent,” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, told us. But what are the results of the experiment?
Our conversations were edited for length and clarity.
Tech companies have powerful, pervasive tools to influence, and prey on, our psychology
Richard Davidson, neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds
I am most worried about the increase in distractability, the national attention deficit we all suffer from, and the consequences that arise from this.
Our attention is being captured by devices rather than being voluntarily regulated. We are like a sailor without a rudder on the ocean — pushed and pulled by the digital stimuli to which we are exposed rather than by the intentional direction of our own mind.
The ability to voluntarily regulate attention is more developed in humans than other species. As William James, the great psychologist, wrote in 1890, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”
But we are becoming impaired in that capacity, globally. We’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent. This is happening insidiously under the radar.
This, to me, underscores the urgency of training our minds with meditation so we don’t have to check our phone 80 times a day.
Christopher Burr, philosopher of cognitive science and postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute
Our constant use of digital technologies is allowing intelligent systems to learn more and more about our psychological traits, with varying degrees of validity or accuracy. For instance, our smartphone’s accelerometer might be used to infer our stress levels at work, or an automated analysis of our vocal patterns could determine that we’re depressed.
But what’s concerning to me is that users are rarely fully informed that their data could be used in this way. Furthermore, there is often insufficient consideration by the companies who develop the growing variety of “health and well-being” technologies of the risks of intervening. For instance, companies may be nudging a user to change sleep patterns, mood, or dietary preferences and causing unintended harm.
In a health care setting, a doctor will try to avoid interventions that do not involve the patient in the decision-making process. Instead, doctors try to respect and promote the patient’s self-understanding and self-determination. We need to find ways of upholding this relationship in the domain of health and well-being technologies as well.
Any inference or subsequent intervention that aims at changing the behavior of a user should be fully transparent, and ideally scrutinized by an ethical review committee. This would help to minimize the chance of unintended consequences (e.g., increased stress, anxiety, or even the risk of behavioral addiction).
The research so far shows a correlation between digital media bombardment and problems with thinking. But it’s far from conclusive.
Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford
The science tells us that there is a negative relationship between using more media simultaneously and working memory capacity. And we know working memory capacity correlates with language comprehension, academic performance, and a whole host of outcome variables that we care about.
The science tells us that the negative relationship exists, but the science doesn’t tell us whether the media behavior is causing the change. It’s too early to really conclude. The answer is we have no idea.
But if there’s a causal relationship, and we are transforming the underlying cognitive functional capabilities, that could have a consequence for academic performance or achievement. One would want to know that.
The field needs to go to big science; we need to go to really large [number of study participants]. I’d take the early studies as suggestions of relationships, but now, let’s actually do the science with using design and power that would lead us to believe things might be more trustworthy in terms of the result that everyone finds.
Paul Murphy, Alzheimer’s researcher in the department of molecular and cellular biochemistry at the University of Kentucky
Neurodegenerative diseases take decades to develop, and widespread use of electronic devices like smartphones, etc. is a still a relatively recent thing. So the scary way to look at this is that we are conducting a risky experiment with some potentially serious public health consequences, and we won’t know for another decade or so if we’ve made some terrible mistakes.
In a way, this is analogous to the problems that we have on studying the long-term effects of screen time on children. We can suspect that this may be bad, but we are still many years away from knowing, and we are nowhere near knowing what sort of exposure is safe or how much might be dangerous.
There’s particular concern, and research focus, on what technology does to young, developing minds
Gary Small, author of the book iBrain and director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
My biggest concern is with young people, whose brains are still developing from birth through adolescence. There’s a process called pruning [the process of removing neurons that are damaged or degraded to improve the brain’s networking capacity]. This could be affected through all the time using tech. We don’t have data on that — but it certainly can raise a concern.
[The constant use of technology] does affect our brain health. It has an upside and a downside. The downside is that when people are using it all the time it interferes with their memory because they are not paying attention to what’s going on. They are distracted.
As far as I know, there are not systematic studies looking at that. You can only look indirectly at this. So we have studied the frequency of memory complaints according to age. You find about 15 percent of young adults complain about their memory, which suggests there might be things going on such as distraction.
On the positive side, there are certain mental tasks, when using these technologies, that exercise our brains. Some studies have shown some video games and apps can improve working memory, fluid intelligence [problem-solving], and multitasking skills.
Susanne Baumgartner, Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media, University of Amsterdam
I am researching the potential impacts of social media and smartphone use on adolescents’ attention and sleep. I am particularly interested in the effects of media multitasking — that is, using media while engaging in other media activities or doing homework, or being in a conversation. Most teenagers nowadays have their own smartphones and therefore access to all kinds of media content whenever they want.
We find in our studies that adolescents [in the Netherlands] who engage in media multitasking more frequently report more sleep problems and more attention problems. They also show lower academic performance. However, this does not necessarily indicate that media use was the cause of this.
When looking at sleep problems, we found that stress related to social media use was a better indicator of sleep problems than the amount of social media use. This seems to indicate that it is not social media use per se that is related to sleep problems, but rather whether adolescents feel stressed by their usage.
So overall, I am still a bit hesitant about the conclusion that digital media use is detrimental to adolescents’ cognitive development. At this point, we need more studies that truly investigate these impacts in long-term studies and with better measurements (e.g., tracking smartphone behavior instead of just asking teenagers about their media use).
And we should also not forget to look at potential beneficial effects. For example, studies conducted by other researchers found that specific types of media use, such as playing action video games, can be beneficial for cognitive abilities.
Elizabeth Englander, director and founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center
One of the most striking things we’ve been looking at in the lab is that teens often tell us almost all characteristics of social media can make them feel more anxious.
If they see what their friends are doing, that can make them feel anxious about not being a part of it. If they don’t see what friends are doing, that also makes them anxious — they worry about being left out. The times they don’t feel anxious is when they are using social media and actively engaging with their friends in a positive way. But at other times, it does seem to increase anxiety.
That’s striking. It’s a model of an interaction where there’s this strong reward system — and that it kind of seems to keep kids on an emotional tether. One girl described it as a leash.
In terms of direct evidence [showing mobile phones and social media impede human connections in person], it’s limited. But think about it: How do people connect with each other? They do it through social skills. And how do you build social skills? There’s only one way we are aware of — through face-to-face interactions with other peers your age.
When you have a society where other things are displacing face-to-face social interactions, it’s reasonable to assume those are going to impact the development of social skills. It does seem to be what we are seeing now.
We need to find a way to balance the risks of ever-present digital technology with its rewards
Heather Kirkorian, associate professor in the school of human ecology at the University of Wisconsin Madison
One thing is clear: The impact of digital media depends partly on how we use them.
In the case of infants and young children, researchers often refer to content and context. That is, the impact of digital media on young children depends on what children are doing and how those activities are structured by the adults who are — or are not — in the room.
For instance, we might compare video-chatting with a grandparent versus watching an educational TV show versus playing a violent video game versus using a finger-painting app. Young children are the most likely to benefit from digital media when the content is engaging, educational, and relevant to their own lives; when they use it together with others — when parents help children understand what they see onscreen and connect it to what they experience offscreen. And when digital media activities are balanced with offscreen activities like playing outside, playing with toys, reading books with caregivers, and getting the recommended amount of sleep.
So the research with teens and adults isn’t much different. For instance, the effects of social media depend on whether we use them to connect with loved ones throughout the day and get social support versus compare our lives to the often highly filtered lives of others and expose ourselves to bullying or other negative content.
Similarly, the impact of video games on attention depends on the type of game that is played and the type of attention that is being measured.
Adam Gazzaley, professor of neurology at University of California San Francisco and author of The Distracted Mind
I’ve written a lot about the direct impact of digital technology on emotional regulation, attention, and stress, as driven by overexposure to information, rapid reward cycles, and simultaneous engagement in multiple tasks. These are certainly reasons to be concerned.
But personally, I find one of the most challenging aspects of our digital preoccupation to be the displacement it induces from nature, face-to-face communication, physical activity, and quiet, internally focused moments.
I’m currently deep into a trip to New Zealand with limited technology exposure so that I can focus on connecting with friends, nature, and my own mind. I realize now more than ever before how important these experiences are for my brain health.
That being said, I do believe that technology can offer us an incredible opportunity to enhance our cognition and enrich our lives. Figuring this out is our next great technological and human challenge.
The case for companies making products that are less addictive
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT
With any new technology, there is always a pattern of people saying, “This is addictive, and it’s destroying society as we know it.” There’s often something real to those concerns. There’s also often something which is moral panic.
One of the ways you sense moral panic is that it tends to be focused on our kids or sexuality. So when you see someone saying we are going to have a lost generation, or that Bluetooth is leading youth to have sex at unprecedented rates, these are always indications of moral panic rather than concern about real things.
From what I can tell, parenting culture in Silicon Valley is this performative craziness. I’m going to virtue-signal harder than anyone else. I am a better parent than you are because I put crazier restrictions on my family than you do. [Banning screens] feels very consistent with that.
The reason those stories are satisfying is you come out of it thinking, “What assholes. If they think this stuff isn’t good, why do they continue to do it?” Then you have folks like Jaron Lanier who say, “Quit your social media now; it’s bad for you.” That feels irresponsible in another way — there are clearly billions of people who aren’t going to quit social media in part because it’s become a critical communications tech. It’s core to how they interact with the world. For a lot of work and play, it’s essential these days.
So what I want to say to Lanier is make it better. We’re not putting this genie back in the bottle. There’s a lot of stuff from it that’s turned out to be good. There’s no one seriously proposing we’re going to turn all of this off.
The interesting question is what are the real problems and how do we address them and make them better? How would you mitigate those harmful effects? What are the positive effects we want out of it?
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Technology is like smoking cannabis.
Ninety percent of people who smoke cannabis do not get addicted. But the point is that you’re going to get some people who misuse a product; if it’s sufficiently good and engaging, that’s bound to happen. The solution to that is we should fix the harm — not the technology itself, but the harm it does. I want companies to look for the addicts and help them.
Lots of companies make addictive products — I guarantee somebody is addicted to Vox. The good news is that these companies know how much you’re using their product. So if they wanted to, they could simply look at their log and say, “Look, if you use the product 30 hours a week, 40 hours a week, we’re gonna reach out and say, ‘Hey, can we help you moderate your behavior? You’re showing a behavioral pattern consistent with someone who may be struggling with an addiction. How can we help?’”
And you know what, the fact is it would actually make the platform better. It is in their interest to do this. I know that some of them are working on it.