By-BetterMinds (Drs. Sujatha Sharma & Avdesh Sharma)

We live in a world that is highly interconnected and globalized, thanks to the widespread use of the Internet that has changed our lives forever.  These changes are most visible in the way our children engage with the digital world – from entertainment, social networking, shopping, sourcing information to academic work, online world etc. which dominates their lives. With all media formats coming together in one smartphone, the world is getting integrated like never before, and we see young ones spending more and more hours on their mobiles.

In that case, how do the patterns of digital media use affects young brains and minds?  Needless to say, that the impacts will be more profound on the growing brains of younger children.

The child’s brain grows rapidly in size between 0-5 years. Thereafter the growth is marked by greater inter-connections between the nerve cells or neurons and hence becomes denser.  This spurt in the brain interconnections is directly shaped by the way the child interacts with his or her environment and continues to expand through the teenage years.  Researchers have found that the way a child or an adolescent consumes and processes information deeply impacts the development of their brain. Every new experience gets encoded in our brains through the subtle changes in the strength of the connections between the various brain areas. Hence, the multiple ways in which children and adolescents interact with the growing digital media, can shape and reshape the brain’s structure, functioning and thus the cognitive development.

So, the brains of young children are constantly adapting and changing, leading to what is referred to as the ‘plasticity’ of the brain. This is why we have to be mindful of what is being fed into our brains and for how long, as digital media usage can literally ‘shape’ our brain-behaviour functioning

Let’s look into how the increasingly digital media engagement affects adolescents’ brains and minds on two crucial areas of functioning – Attention and Memory.

Attention Process

Adolescents spend considerable time, up to 6-7 hours a day on various online activities.  Not only are they spending more time online, but they also switch functions, scroll, swipe multiple pages, attend to several tasks simultaneously and rapidly flit between activities.  So they could actually do a project-related Google search, send Whatsapp message, post on Instagram or Facebook, check phone notification, or even play online games in between – all at the same time! At any given time they will surely have several windows open on their devices. This level of media multitasking with divided attention can be quite harmful, even though it can make the adolescent feel extremely smart and adept at handling so much at the same time.  It is not difficult to imagine, in reality, how such fleeting attention spans and divided attention can affect the brain’s information processing centre and how this, in turn, can affect the adolescent’s thought processes and well-being.

Are we seeing a generation of easily distractible teenagers? Research evidence has shown that those indulging in extensive media – multitasking regularly, actually perform poorly on cognitive tasks measuring the ability to sustain attention, compared to those who did not. This finding is backed up by brain scan studies which show increased activity in the part of the brain called the right prefrontal cortex (forehead area) which indicates a high level of distractibility while processing information, resulting in poorer mental performance.  More significantly, media multitasking not only reduces the focus and the ability to sustain attention towards reaching goals; rather, it does not in any way improve the ability to multitask in other day-to-day settings.  In fact, multi-taskers were unable to deal with distractions from their environment much more. Their brains, it appears, had learnt to be readily distracted by too many incoming stimuli, by attending to all of them!  The effect may be more so for younger adolescents such as preteens, whose brains are still evolving.

Additionally, these very same difficulties in sustaining attention and filtering out distraction can also seriously affect academic performance, creative thinking and social activities.  It could interfere with sleep routines. Interestingly, it has also been found that increased digital engagement has led to a shallow and less committed approach to written material or printed text.  This explains why teenagers are less enamoured by books – academic or otherwise!

Memory Process:

Young people today, including teenagers are largely dependent on Google, GPS, digital calculators and alerts for calendar events, which are present in our digital devices.  The ability to access information of any kind in an instant with the click of the mouse, or the press of a button, has enabled us all, including students, to outsource their memories to Internet platforms.  Is this creating a dependency, interfering with a teenager’s ability to remember the voluminous amounts of information that the Internet throws up?  It is more likely that they remember where the information is stored rather than the information itself!

Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience who study the brain-cognitive interface, have found that the ‘schematic memory’, (memory for facts), can become impaired over time in such instances.  This means, while they can quietly retrieve information through the ‘externalized memory bank’ of the Internet, they are unfortunately also unable to recall or retain that information accurately.  Memories could appear piece-meal, and shallow in content. This may be so because the integrated manner in which the brain regions coordinate to process and convert short term into long term memory is possibly affected.  It appears that the brain simply gets habituated to depend on information storage and retrieval to outside sources such as the Internet rather than form a strong internal memory system. 

These findings have huge implications for educationists while planning delivery of curricula, to enable students to be reliant on their own abilities to form healthy memory processes. Digital technology is best used as a supplement, not a substitute for memory. On the flip side, not overloading the brain with too much information by outsourcing it to the Internet also has its benefits.  Teenagers can use this ‘freed up’ cognitive resources for other creative activities, without depleting mental capacities.

In the end, it is all about helping young people find ways to strike a balance between rational and dependent overuse of digital media. This can minimize proven adverse effects and maximize the brain’s potential to adapt and excel. In the second part of this blog, we will continue to examine some other aspects mind-brain functions and digital media like thinking, creativity and social cognition.

Illustration credit: pikisuperstar