As cell phones and other portable devices have become ubiquitous, many researchers are concerned about their potential impact on our lives. “In many ways, we have become more efficient, better connected and more productive thanks to technology,” says Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and the Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging. “But there’s a cost to these innovations that impacts multiple body parts, including the brain.”
The technology has both an upside and a downside. The upside is that it makes our lives, personal and professional, more efficient and more productive. We have 24/7 communication capacity to people around the world. We have extraordinary amounts of information that we can tap into, like an external hard drive that augments our biological hard drives in the brain. The downside is that there is an addictive quality to these devices. At the extreme, technology use disrupts lives and becomes an impulse that cannot be controlled. There are people who spend 12, 14 hours a day online. And because the devices are so mobile, you can be on them anywhere — while in an elevator, crossing the street, sitting in a restaurant. Look at a group of people, and often you will see that all of them are looking at their devices, and there’s no interaction taking place among them.
People become so immersed while using these devices that very often they won’t look up when having an actual conversation. This can have a significant effect on their ability to notice nonverbal cues and can interfere with their mental capacity for face-to-face communication. Brain imaging studies have shown that if you spend a lot of time engaged in a specific mental task, the neural circuits that control that experience will strengthen. The flip side of that is you’re not spending time with other kinds of tasks, and the neural circuits for those tasks will weaken. Studies have demonstrated that increased time online or on a mobile device can diminish a person’s ability to recognize and interpret other people’s emotional expressions.
It sounds like our devices are very much a two-edged sword, offering the ability to tap into global networks of information and enabling us to communicate more broadly, but at the same time isolating us and perhaps breaking our links of connection to other people.
We can give a thumbs-up or happy face to our friends’ posts. We can share information or ideas in the moment with our group of friends, so there is a sense that we are reaching out and connecting with all these people. But the quality of that connection is very different from a face-to-face conversation with someone. It is very difficult to discern or interpret subtle interpersonal issues while communicating via texts or tweets.
There is an effect. Memory has two major components: encoding, which is getting information into the brain, and retrieval, finding the information when you want it. If you are constantly using your device, you are not noticing what’s going on around you, so a lot of useful information is not getting into your memory stores. On the other hand, these devices augment our memory, and in many cases, they make it possible for us to not have to remember many details that we used to have to remember, like directions or birthdates or appointments. In that way, they are very helpful memory tools.
The noted digital consultant Linda Stone came up with the term “partial continuous attention,” which describes our constantly scanning our immediate environment. It is motivated by a desire to not miss anything and to seemingly be connected to everything and everybody. In my view, this is a tremendous distraction, and it might even put our brains at a level of mental stress. People who are tethered to their devices are constantly on the alert for the next buzz or ping. Could that be telling them there is something more important than whatever it is that they are doing or the person they are with in that moment?
We perceive that they keep us connected, even if in reality it is in very superficial ways. We are social animals; it is in our nature as human beings. These devices take everything that is human and put them on steroids. In that regard, I think this creates a real problem for us. It’s ironic that some of the motivation for creating this wonderful technology was to make things more efficient so we have more time to be thoughtful and to solve problems. But because of the way our brains are wired, we’ve just taken on more and more tasks, and we can’t keep up with them all.
Be mindful of the type of information you are communicating and the format by which you are communicating it.
Balance your time online and offline. Put down or step away from the device to have face-to-face interactions. Schedule time each morning to catch up on email and texting so you don’t feel pressure to constantly check for new messages throughout the day.
Turn off your devices at night. Looking at a screen before bedtime does not put the brain in a restful state.
Use your devices to enhance your appreciation of your offline life. Try a guided meditation app to lower stress, and set your smartphone timer to remind you to take regular digital breaks.