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Does screen love scramble our brains?

Does screen love scramble our brains?

Child using laptop computer

The Australian – 25 May 2016

John Ross – Higher Education reporter, Sydney

Oxford University's Susan Greenfield

Oxford University’s Susan Greenfield: ‘What kind of world do you want?’

Internet addiction has been linked with lower grey matter volume in the right frontal pole, which has a potential impact on decision-making and willpower.

Internet addiction has been linked with lower grey matter volume in the right frontal pole, which has a potential impact on decision-making and willpower.

Two years ago, researchers in the US concocted a simple study to ­assess people’s need for distraction in our hi-tech world. The results were shocking, in more ways than one.

In a series of experiments, about 800 people were asked to sit and think by themselves for ­between six and 20 minutes. Some participants were allowed to take their smartphones into the room with them, so long as they didn’t peek. Others had the option of ­distracting themselves with electric shocks.

About half of the participants later admitted they had “cheated” by checking their phones or amusing themselves in other ways. And an extraordinary 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women voluntarily administered to themselves painful electric shocks.

“Most people do not enjoy just thinking, and clearly prefer having something else to do,” the ­researchers mused in the journal Science. “But would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no ­activity at all?”

This is a question that resonates in our classrooms and bedrooms, as handheld technology infiltrates our study, work and leisure. But while technology turns us into a race of cognitive hyper­actives, some question the harm — particularly on the malleable minds of our children.

Advocates laud technology’s potential to unlock a brave new world of learning. Interactive media is speeding up access to ­information, boosting opportuni­ties for children to learn through experience and experimentation, the argument goes. Educational apps, online learning programs and video games harness multiple senses — sight, sound, touch — to engage children in holistic, self-paced journeys of discovery that exploit their intui­tive familiarity with technology. Learning is personalised and boundless.

There is little question that children are learning differently. Recent US surveys found that up to 80 per cent of children aged below 11 regularly use educational programs and games.

There is also little question that children have an affinity for technology. Two years ago, British communication regulator Ofcom found typical six-year-olds understood more about tech­nology than 45-year-old adults. Toddlers were learning how to ­operate smartphones and tablets before they could talk, the agency reported.

But if children are good at technology, does that mean technology is good for them? Some studies suggest it can be.

­“Research shows that video games and other screen media ­increase reaction times and the ­capacity to identify details among clutter,” says Jim Taylor, a University of San Francisco psychologist.

Taylor says that reliance on search engines leaves children less adept at remembering things, but they are better at finding stuff out. “Given the ease with which information can be found these days, knowing where to look is becoming more important for children than actually knowing something,” he blogged on the Psychology Now website.

There is also evidence that educational media can improve early literacy. A 2007 Israeli study of five- and six-year-olds found that electronic books improved their reading skills more than trad­itional print books, so long as adults were present.

But the value of educational media is patchy, says Melbourne neurologist Monique Ryan. Children under two derive no benefit at all, she says, while the advantages for older kids largely depend on what they are trying to learn.

“Certain cognitive capacities respond better to (technological) formats than others,” says Ryan, of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. “Maths and deductive reasoning are easier to promote with an app or program. You can probably promote language-based skills to some ­degree, but ­obviously social skills are negatively impacted by excessive interaction with screens.”

Some research suggests that pen and paper trump technology when it comes to understanding and remembering lessons. A 2013 Canadian study suggested the use of laptops, iPads and smartphones in the classroom negatively affected academic performance.

The researchers found that children who had peppered their classwork with simple Google, Facebook or YouTube searches subsequently performed 11 per cent worse in a comprehension test, compared with classmates who had stuck to their books.

Sydney Grammar School headmaster John Vallance

One of Australia’s top schools agrees. Sydney Grammar School bans laptops in class and requires students to submit written assignments until Year 10, warning that technology distracts from quality teaching. Its headmaster believes the billions of dollars spent on computers in Australian schools is a “scandalous waste of money’’.

“I’ve seen so many schools with limited budgets spending a disproportionate amount of their money on technology that doesn’t really bring any measurable, or non-measurable, benefits,’’ headmaster John Vallance told The Australian recently. “Schools have spent hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars­ on interactive whiteboards, digital projectors, and now they’re all being jettisoned.’’

But psychologist Jim Taylor says that while books foster focus and imagination, the internet helps make people efficient information scanners. That can either help or hurt kids’ learning, he says.

Technology’s key problem is that it interferes with attention, which is the “gateway to thinking”, Taylor says. “Without it, perception, memory, language, learning, creativity, reasoning, problem solving and decision making are greatly diminished or can’t occur at all,” he blogged.

Children in the past devoted time to reading that ­required ­“intense and sustained attention”, Taylor argues. The ­internet catapulted children into an environment in which “distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary and memory is inhibited”.

He cites findings that reading plain text results in faster and better learning than text peppered with links and ads, and that students find text-only presentations more informative and — counterintuitively — more entertaining than lessons with added video.

Paul Schneider

Paul Schneider, 4, with family, including mother Barbara, with mug.

Sydney mother of four Barbara Schneider has witnessed the changing impacts of technology on her four children. Anna, 18, was an early bookworm. But nine-year-old Thomas is only now discovering books, previously held back by the constant distractions of tablets and phones that did not exist in Anna’s formative years.

Schneider worries about the ­internet’s effects on her children, and not only because of what they might see. “A book gives you a framework, but you have to do a lot of the imagining yourself — even if it’s only to think what these people look like, or to draw yourself a picture of the landscape.

“In media, it’s all done for you. You don’t have to think about whether the heroine has blue eyes or looks Asian. It’s done for you. They have made her up for you.”

Media moves too quickly, Schneider adds. “If you read books like Harry Potter, it’s so slow. You can think about what’s happening. It gives you a chance to talk about values and beliefs with your child. Now, it’s just all so fast.”

She sees the biggest impacts in her youngest child, four-year-old Paul, who constantly pleads to use his parents’ smartphones — and throws tantrums when they are taken away. Technology cultivates distractibility, impatience and a need for instant gratification, she says.

These sorts of concerns play out against a broader debate about the cognitive and behavioural ­impacts of technology. Research suggests that screen use erodes people’s ability to read faces — for children in particular — and that mobile media distractions ­impair children’s ability to manage their emotions.

Screen time can also ­affect adult cognitive ability. ­Excessive reliance on Google can turn us into “cognitive misers” who avoid exercising our grey matter to ­answer questions. This diminishes our ability to store and retrieve facts and make intellectual connections, much as sedentary behaviour leads to muscle wasting.

And our reliance on the internet is tricking us into believing we know things that we don’t. A Yale University study conducted last year found that people who looked up facts online later rated themselves as more knowledgeable on other ­topics, compared with counterparts who had not used the internet.

More worrying is research that links screen use with diagnosable clinical conditions. A massive Australian study released last week found a strong link between ­excessive internet use and psychological distress — including sui­cidal thoughts — in young people.

Researchers from the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, crunched data from a survey of about 6000 parents and 3000 adolescents. They found that 4 per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds exhibited “problematic” internet use or gaming. Of these, one-quarter had major ­depressive disorders and 14 per cent had recently ­attempted suicide.

Like most such studies, the findings did not prove causality. “These young people could be ­experiencing more mental health problems as a result of their internet use, or they could be turning to the web to help them deal with their psychological distress,” says lead researcher Wavne Rikkers. “It really is a chicken or egg ­scenario.”

The human brain is constantly rewiring itself, as new thoughts and experiences forge fresh synaptic connections. But the rate of ­rewiring these days raises a question: is technology modifying the brain’s very structure?

It’s a contentious issue, paralleling the hotly disputed claim that mobile phone radiation can trigger brain cancer.

“It would be very difficult to prove or assess,” says Monique Ryan. “It would have to be looked at prospectively in very well controlled studies, in a large number of children over a long period.”

But Susan Greenfield, the head of an Oxford University neuro­science research group, is among those who suspect technology may be reshaping the brain. Her 2014 book, Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains, triggered a storm of ­derision.

Critics accused Greenfield of an unscientific scare campaign based on a skewed ­appraisal of poor-quality studies. Undeterred, she highlighted fresh research linking technology overuse with physiological changes in the brain.

In one, scientists linked mobile media multitasking with lower grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region ­involved in functions ranging from regulating blood pressure and heart rate to processing empathy and decision-making.

Another study suggested that action video gaming could encourage cell growth in the striatum, which plays a critical role in the brain’s reward system. But it could reduce brain matter in the ­hippocampus — potentially ­increasing the risk of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, dementia and other conditions.

Yet another study linked internet addiction — being online for more than 42 hours a week, and displaying addictive signs such as withdrawal symptoms — with less grey matter volume in the right frontal pole, which is part of the prefrontal cortex. Greenfield says under-activation of the prefrontal cortex is linked to poor decision-making and willpower.

One of her chief critics, University College London psychologist Vaughan Bell, says the overall picture from research is that the “vast majority” of social media users do not experience problems.

“In fact, (they) tend to see slight but measurable benefits in their social wellbeing,” he said.

But Katerina Johnson, a doctoral psychology student at ­Oxford, says there is a case for a cautionary approach. “Society is now using technology so ubiquitously. We should consider more palpably the impact we may be having on our brains. People used to think smoking was all right for you. I’m not saying technology could be as harmful, but the more we can understand about how it’s affecting our lives, the better.”

Bell says such concerns are reasonable but have been exhaustively researched. However, Greenfield says more searching questions are needed. “What kind of world do you want? What kinds of talents to you want your children to have? What (do) you want them to learn and value?

“There are grounds for us to ­really question what society we want to live in, what values we want to promote. We need to wake up to these very big and important questions rather than just drifting into this cyber world.”

Reshaping the Brain


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