The impact of technology in the 21st Century

I recently read the book, Mind Change, by Susan Greenfield.

Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE, of Oxford University, is a British scientist with a doctorate and more than 32 honorary degrees. In this book Greenfield examines research that will enable us to start considering the impact of technology on the brain, cognitive skills, lifestyle, culture and personal aspirations as well as neurodegenerative diseases. Greenfield believes that we need to fully understand the impact of technology so that we can effectively plan the kind of world we want and the kind of people we wish to be.

Dainfern College embraces IT and staying ahead in the field of technological advancements is critical and designated in our BluPrints as a key driver of our practice. Greenfield, as a highly regarded scholar and scientist at Oxford University makes it very clear that IT has enabled speed and efficiency in the workplace as well as in educational spaces.  The advantages of IT in the educational arena have led to many children accessing education and information and many others accelerating their academic progress and conceptual frameworks.

Accepting that our brains are as “magnificently and exquisitely adaptable” as neuroscience has proven, they are undoubtedly changing in parallel to the cyber world’s ever-changing 21st Century environment. Greenfield looks at how exactly they are reacting to this new environment, sometimes termed the ‘digital wildfire’.

This is the concept of Mind Change, which can be understood by comparing it to the concept of ‘climate change’.

As rational beings, one would argue that we should simply ‘ration’ our use of digital technology, so as to maintain a balanced approach, but this argument has not stood the test of time. Greenfield uses the analogy of smoking. Sensible adults and children continue to smoke cigarettes, despite our knowledge that it is a harmful habit. Sensible, moderate use of computers is a subjective concept but all current research shows it is not happening. Many people are immersed in digital technology for much of their daily working and social lives. 

Never before in a child’s development have there been so many easy opportunities to create an alternative identity (primarily through social media sites and games) and within these spaces, to accept the notion that actions don’t have consequences. As such, this environment is raising unprecedented questions as to what is best. Greenfield argues that, while our children’s brains are not ‘hard-wired’ to interface effectively with screen technologies, each has evolved to respond with sensitivity to external influences, in whatever particular environment it inhabits, and therefore the exposure to technology is undoubtedly changing their brains. Children are also being introduced to the digital environment at an ever younger age, as reflected by the production of Fisher Price’s potty training seat with an iPad stand. The question of the impact of digital technologies is ever more important, as these early years are so vital in a brain’s development.

Internet and video games are very popular with children and young people and offer a range of opportunities for fun, learning and development but we cannot ignore the fact that relationships, including a child’s relationship with their parents, are compromised by the time spent engaged in these activities. If a young person does not experience sufficient rehearsal of the basic non-verbal communication of eye-contact, voice modulation, body language perception and, above all, physical contact, he or she will not be particularly good at them. Everything takes practice. Consequently, the youth would not be good at exercising empathy. Research into university students already shows levels of empathy are declining.

Excessive or obsessive use, exposure to violence and other inappropriate material are all obvious negatives too. With regard to aggression and recklessness, whatever we practise repeatedly affects the brain. Aggressive video games do promote aggression. Excessive play of video games can lead to abnormalities in brain fibres associated with emotional processing, powers of attention, decision making and cognitive control. 

Most researchers agree that the digital age is producing an easily distracted generation with short attention spans. This is a grave area of concern for learning, which demands concentration and focused, sustained attention.

TV and video games (which have a worse effect) lower attention levels - when players are young this is sometimes only apparent a year later. Many people with attention problems are attracted to gaming and then their attention worsens. Playing with parents can be a good social activity but not for long periods (as there are no gains beyond a short period of togetherness on these games) or on age-inappropriate games.  Gaming causes problems with sustained attention, not selective attention. Excessive video gaming, even if just for an hour or so a day, is associated with promoting ADHD. The video gaming urge has been found to be reduced by the Ritalin-type drug, Modafinal. Thus, video gaming may be an example of an ADHD child self-medicating when his drug wears off. 

In recent years there has been a huge increase in social network users. Greenfield states that, if a person is increasingly anchored in the present and consequently devoting considerable time to the demands of the outside world, a robust sense of inner identity might be harder to sustain. The thrill of reporting and retrieving may exceed the pleasure derived from life’s ongoing experiences. For example, tweeting or Facebooking at a restaurant becomes more important than the whole restaurant experience. Privacy becomes a less prized commodity. What are these practices doing to each brain? A continuous state of high arousal, the craving of novelty and stimulation also make one very vulnerable to manipulation, both in how one sees the world and how one reacts to it. Social media participants have been found to readily obey and conform, wanting constant approval of others. Fact and fiction may then blur, and one’s conceptual framework for understanding of the world around one will disappear.

Neurons, like the muscles of the body, grow stronger and larger with whatever activity is rehearsed (such as the London cabbies, for example, whose memory training efforts result in a big hippocampus). In 1872, Alexander Bain stated: “For every act of memory, every exercise of bodily aptitude, every habit, recollection, train of ideas, there is a specific grouping or coordination of sensations and movements, by virtue of specific growths in cell junctions.”

On the positive side, the digital age is eroding old constraints of time and space and moving towards a blurring of cultural differences and diversity, which is breaking barriers and increasing our awareness and understanding of each other at an unprecedented rate.

Speed, efficiency and ubiquity are also generally rated as good things but it worth considering that the time necessary to reflect deeply before responding to an email or SMS is often sacrificed. Have we considered the consequences of this? Greenfield also urges us to consider how we digest, in this pacey world, what is happening around us, without specifically allocating time to do so. How do we think? If we accept that thinking is a complex process and involves several chains and/or layers of thought, as opposed to an instant emotional outburst or reaction such as a scream, refusal, acceptance or laugh, then we acknowledge that, as humans, we should not just react, for example, to internet prompts almost as soon as they appear. What is the pace and habit of reacting and responding instantly doing to our ability to manage our impulse control in other areas? Are we thinking deeply and giving matters the attention and consideration we should?

Greenfield also talks of how the average home has been changed by the fact that family members can be constantly connected beyond the household, which has many advantages. There is often, however, a more intimate connection between the family members inside and outside the home than there is between the family members inside the home, who are often all on individual devices and not connected at all! By contrast, the 20th Century TV age brought families together around the TV in the lounge. They shared the watching experience and probably chatted about it. Digital technology presents the threat/boon of becoming a lifestyle of its own.

What kind of individual is going to emerge from these life-changing experiences/exposures? Definitely one less attuned to the outdoors. Since 1970, the active radius of a child at home has shrunk 90%. This restriction on play is unprecedented. This lack of movement may have fundamental issues for the well-being of children. Inter alia, they may never develop a realistic sense of risk, nor an imagination that allows them to suggest to a friend that they make up a game or a one-act play. The amount of exercise people take is curtailed by sitting in front of a screen or standing on a pavement while texting, when the dog wants to run. Will obesity numbers multiply faster than is already happening? Professor Tanya Byron is one who has been very vocal on this: “The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults … Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.” There is a very different scenario, in terms of creative thought and activity, when the screen is the driver in an activity for which consequences are not real.

Brain changes occur not just in learning but through all experiences and environmental change. An enriched environment is also known to reduce anxiety and compensate for early childhood problems. 

Exercise and conscious thought can also produce brain changes. 

Reading children stories is still the best way to develop the necessary cognitive skills - imagination, attention span, empathy and insight into the minds of others. Gabriel and Young state: “Books provide opportunities for social connection and blissful calm that comes from being a part of something larger than oneself for a precious fleeting moment.” Fiction, too, better promotes empathy. A novel is as much a learning tool as a textbook. We can understand our own facts through someone else's story. We need fiction to understand facts. We connect, in our own framework, with their experiences and decisions. We care deeply about what happens to characters, much more than in a video game. Stories demand time and imagination. The chain of cause and effect is in a strictly ordered sequence. That creates meaning. On the internet, parallel choices, hyper texting and randomised participation is more typical. Can that develop empathy? 

Unsurprisingly, the best environment for learning is one in which people are having fun and interacting with others, irrespective of whether these key ingredients are provided through a screen or a more traditional scenario. Logically, though, off-screen excitement and interest should produce the best results, according to Greenfield’s research.

While the screen can readily offer a more rigorous rehearsal regime in mental processing than people or paper ever can, does the same apply to how effectively we learn? Technology definitely seems to have produced greater benefits for Mathematics and reading, though the evidence for even these is always linked to a close connection with teachers' efforts. Greenfield states that nothing beats an inspirational and exciting teacher. Even with a good teacher, however, complex material is not learnt as well online. That has been repeatedly proven. There is always a case for real classrooms in which real teachers oversee real-life conversations. E-screens with active adult intervention, however, can produce satisfactory learning. 

Mind change depends on what each of us wants and where we want to go as individuals. Don't ask what will happen in the future; instead, ask how to shape the future. Greenfield suggests, in her carefully scientific writing style, that working out what this connectivity may mean and what we decide to do about it is surely the most far reaching and exciting challenge of our time. 

Patti Blackhurst

Dainfern College

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