Are Mobile Devices Changing Our Brains?

The internet has undoubtedly plunged us into something of a revolution [1]. It’s brought great change to the world – the scale of which we cannot yet quite see, as we are still feeling our way through this brave new world. Many of these changes are positive – we are more able than ever before to connect with people on the other side of the world, many of us have opportunities for learning and advancement which simply would not have been possible a few decades ago, and access to information has never been more unfettered. However, the internet is not without its dark sides. ‘Trolling’, the general dissemination of hate [2], and a loss of trust in information sources [3] are just a few of the problems caused by the internet – problems which we’re struggling to understand and control. However, some also believe that the internet and digital devices also pose a serious risk to our health – particularly our mental and cognitive health. Is the internet really changing our brains? If so – how?

Mobile Devices And Cognitive Overload

Mobile devices are very useful indeed. Gone are the days when people could easily get ‘stuck’ with no means of contacting help. However, they do frequently replace the problems they solve with new ones. Once, being splashed by a car or falling in a lake was an annoyance at worst, funny at best. Now, it’s a potentially expensive disaster if your phone/tablet is on you and it’s not covered against water damage [4]. Perhaps more worrying, however, is the fact that we’re arguably becoming slaves to our devices, and the internet to which they give us access. Those constant notifications, the need to check up on our social media posts, the impulse to pull out our phones and research a random thought the second it occurs – all of these leave our brains with very little ‘mental downtime’. While digital technology is progressing incredibly fast, evolution proceeds at its usual, aeons-long pace. Our brains simply did not evolve to be effectively plugged in to a world of interaction and information 24/7. Without the time it needs to ponder, take stock, and rest on its own, our brains are put under intense pressure. What is more, the fact that the internet has made a lot of things ‘easier’ means that we’re actually increasing our workload by trying to simultaneously do 10 things which would previously have required travel, time, and a reasonable amount of (one-to-one) attention paid to them.  As such, our brains are getting ‘overloaded’ – and our thought processes are becoming far less efficient [5].

Digital Reliance And Internet Addiction

Our brains work best when they’re given exercise. The more we consider things for ourselves, the more neural connections our brains make, and the better we become at thinking in general. Problem solving and critical thinking, however, are arguably endangered in the era of the internet. Why? Simply because the internet, theoretically, has all the answers. While there’s nothing wrong with using the internet to research a problem, collate sources, analyse data and so on, simply heading online to find the answer to a problem means that your brain is not doing the work itself. And the more we get used to having the ‘answers’ spoon-fed to us, the less able we are to think critically [6] about what we’re being told. To take this further, it should be noted that getting information (and social media validation) online gives our brains a certain ‘buzz’ which can, if one uses the internet heavily enough, become ‘addictive’. Internet addiction – already a big problem in Asia [7] – is just as damaging as many other addictions (if not more so, due to the ubiquity of the internet).

What Can You Do?

So what can you do to prevent yourself from falling prey to internet-based problems? Well, there’s no need to give up the internet entirely, but it may be a good idea to cut down on usage. Limit your internet visits to those which are strictly necessary. Try not to have too many browser tabs open at once. Stick to concentrating on the matter in hand rather than letting your mind and your mouse wander. And give your brain plenty of no-internet time. Meditate, go for phone-free walks, read books, exercise – these will give your brain a chance to calm down and build new connections without the danger of cognitive overload. And, always, think critically about what you’re reading.

[1] Micha Kaufman, “The Internet Revolution is the New Industrial Revolution”, Forbes, Oct 2012

[2] Jamie Bartlett, “The utopian dream of the internet has become a nightmare – and Donald Trump is its spawn”, The Telegraph, Jan 2017

[3] Kathleen Parker, “Fake news, media distrust and the threat to democracy”, The Denver Post, Nov 2016

[4] Quotezone, “Cheap Insurance For All Types Of Tablet”

[5] Daniel J Levitin, “Why the modern world is bad for your brain”, The Guardian, Jan 2015

[6] Richard Adhikari, “Is the Internet Killing Critical Thinking?”, TechNewsWorld, Sept 2009

[7] Tom Phillips, “Chinese teen chops off hand to ‘cure’ internet addiction”, The Telegraph, Feb 2015

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