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

Youngsters, especially teenagers, spend a major portion of their day immersed in digital devices: attending online classes, chatting up with friends on social media platforms, for entertainment videos or gaming. While increased online activity appears somewhat alarming with as to what it can do to our brains, the fact is that it has scaled up our capacities and freed up space in our minds to manage multiple mundane, painstaking tasks by increasing our efficiency.  But, it is important to understand that the wheel can spin both ways – we can teach our young ones to become masters of using technology to increase brain capacities or become habitual over users indulging in mindless online activity that might interfere with the brain mechanisms and functioning.

Many neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the growth and connection patterns in brains of teenagers who are exposed to varying levels of digital technology. Apart from its impacts on attention spans, concentration, and memory formations, there are also indications that thinking, creativity and social cognition could be affected. Once we understand how these happen, we can advocate strategies to ensure that adolescents learn to be more mindful in their use of digital platforms and reduce impacts.

In this second part of the article let’s explore the digital media – brain interplay and how they influence thinking, and understanding of social cues and contexts.

Thinking Process

An important aspect of a cognitive process that is governed by brain functioning is the ability for abstract thinking, which typically evolves during the pre-teen years.

Emerging new researches suggest that reading on digital platforms makes people attend to the more concrete details rather than processing the information in a more abstract way, as compared to those reading the same in a printed form. They seem to focus more on surface-level aspects and localized solutions rather than on the big picture. This might imply that information processing through a digital device may offer limited opportunities for deeper analysis and abstract thinking. However, more research would help us understand how to overcome this limitation related to over digitalization of information. For the moment, a balanced approach for this would be the key for the moment.

Studies also suggest that constant flow of information through digital devices not only lead to loss of attention but also to a kind of loss of control of the mind’s ability to decipher what is more relevant and where to focus. It appears that the mind gets attracted just to what’s new rather than what’s important. 

Social Cognition

Teenagers live in a hyper-connected world, engaged on many social media platforms that offer great opportunities to forge relationships across the world.  Peers assume a great significance in their life and so is their hunger to seek validation from them. Interestingly, the brain’s response patterns to online social experiences are very similar to real-world sociality. 

A region deep in the midbrain called the amygdala is the key brain area for social cognition (how people process, store and apply information related to their social interactions) and social networks.  Brain imaging studies that showed an increased volume of this region is also associated with the number of Facebook friends, implying how closely connected and similar online and real worlds are.  It highlights the importance of online social interactions and friendships and its ability to affect our emotional experiences. 

The amygdala is a part of the limbic system which is also referred to as our ‘emotional brain’.  Studies show that this region ‘lights up’ indicating increased activity, with virtual love, acceptance, and validation that one gets through numbers of ‘followers’ and ‘Likes’ much akin to how this region reacts when a person sees a person they love in the real world activating the ‘pleasure pathways’ in the brain!   It is not surprising then that teenagers crave as much for social media acceptance and feel dejected by online rejections.  This impact of acceptance and rejection in the digital world is no less than a real face-to-face social one, as the brain perceives and processes signals from social forms of interactions in a similar way.  These findings have huge implications for determining the self-esteem issues of adolescents and ultimately on their social-emotional well-being.

Conclusion

The preliminary evidence emerging from research studying the connections between increased Internet usage and the brain-behaviour relationship has thrown up interesting insights. As is with all new technological advances and innovations, while they open up exciting possibilities but they also caution against certain excessive usage, especially in young evolving brains in the preteen and teen years. Time will most certainly tell us if this generation of children will have differently evolving brains.

The Internet and all that it offers, the good, is here to stay.  In such a scenario the best way to navigate the digital world is to be enlightened through knowledge of its ability to impact the human brain, mind, emotions and behaviour. The bottom line is that we can choose if and how we let digital media affect our brains.  Only then can we as a society – parents, teachers, students included – can hope to maximize its benefits and minimize its potential to affect us in negative ways.

Image credits: freepik.com