The third section of the unit will examine the current state of society’s use of digital technology, with a focus on teenagers, looking at some of the positive but mostly negative effects that have been documented. Here, students will address the question, how is digital technology moving us toward Utopian Lives? How might it be moving us in an opposite direction? For each of the sections below, nonfiction articles at the appropriate reading level and cited in the Student Resources section below, will be used for the students to glean the important information.
Consequences of Excessive Digital Media Use
How developing youth spend their time impacts brain development. Neuroscientists have known for a while that experience and activities influence the release of specific neurotransmitters, thus strengthening particular synaptic connections in the brain cortex while weakening others. The brains of children are especially plastic, explaining why the younger an individual is when they experience a brain injury the greater potential for recovery they have, as new synaptic connections readily form to take over the functions of damaged ones. This phenomenon of plasticity also explains the ease with which young children can learn the complex nuances of various languages as compared with adults. Thus, it should not be surprising that children’s brains would develop differently as a consequence of the time they spend focused on small and large screens.17 For example, neural pathways that favor skills necessary to master handheld digital devices, such as the frequent shifting of attention, will strengthen at the expense of those pathways necessary for the sustained focused attention necessary for reading a long text or listening to a prolonged lecture. In recent years, more educated parents, including those who have developed the technology themselves, have limited or even eliminated their own children’s screen time. There is a new movement, “Wait Until 8th,” which encourages parents to sign a pledge to wait until 8th grade to give their children smartphones.18
Multi-tasking and shifting attention
The last few generations brought up on videos have become accustomed to a high level of stimulation with rapidly changing sights and sounds, and have trouble focusing their attention under more mundane conditions such as a lecture from a teacher in front of a classroom. According to Microsoft Canada the human attention span dropped from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013.19 Catherine Price points out in her book How to Break Up with your Phone20 that paying attention and filtering out distractions is hard enough work when the distractions are external, like noise when you are trying to read a paper book, but much more complicated when the very page we are reading on a computer or smartphone contains links designed to distract us. She also notes that without practice we lose the ability to focus our attention for sustained periods.
A major factor present in regard to the time spent on smartphones pertains to the frequent switching between apps, thus requiring only brief periods of attention, rather than the sustained attention necessary to read a longer text such as a magazine article. Now the brain is also habituating to frequently shifting attention, which we commonly refer to as multitasking. However, some researchers have questioned whether doing more than one thing at a time well is even possible. We may hypothesize that the frequent shifting of attention from one app to another, the checking of emails, texting with several people, watching a few minutes of a video, all within a few minutes may be causing a new generation to grow up in which attention deficit disorder becomes the norm rather than the exception for the teenage brain.21 This “continuous partial attention” places the brain in a heightened state of alertness and stress, which may result in individuals not taking the time or even having the ability to contemplate or make thoughtful decisions.22
Neuroscientists have discovered that humans become addicted very easily to various substances and also behaviors which raise the dopamine levels in their brains. Most people realize that opiates, gambling, and even sex and food can cause addictive behavior such as ignoring work and other responsibilities in favor of getting this dopamine rush. Now people are starting to realize that a video game played on an app on one’s smartphone, or pictures or texts sent by one’s peers, may have the same potential to become addictive through raising dopamine levels.23 Companies like Neurons Inc, which measure the electrical activity of the brain while using apps, are hired by social media developers like Facebook to determine which features produce the most dopamine.24 Behavioral cues trigger dopamine spikes which relieve psychological distress,25 and our phones with their apps have been engineered to produce these dopamine spikes, which are highly addictive and take over free will to choose how to spend one’s time in favor of the strong desire for relief from psychic pain or angst. Furthermore, the apps are masterminded to provide variable schedules of reinforcement which are the most powerful mechanisms of reinforcement for learning. In a variable schedule of reinforcement the user does not know when they might receive the coveted prize, which may be a “like” on an Instagram post, something that has the added effect of being a social reinforcer which is highly salient to teens.
The brains of adolescents are especially vulnerable to rewarding information because the prefrontal cortex is not fully mature and does not inhibit the emotional limbic system. These behaviorally addicted teens can show symptoms of addiction such as anxiety or panic when they lose access to their phones, even for a short time, and are unable to stop using them on their own even when they want to. Around the world, treatment centers are opening for adults and even teens who are so addicted to digital media that it is interfering with school, jobs and normal lives. The popularity of how-to books such as How to Break Up with Your Phone speaks to the amount of people realizing their lives are becoming unmanageable because of the miraculous digital device in their pockets.
In addition to the physiological effects on the developing brain, there are obviously psychosocial effects of so much screen time on the maturing adolescent. Jean M. Twenge has presented voluminous research on the generation she has labeled iGen.26 Members of this Generation born between 1995-2012 have lived their entire adolescence on social networking sites. It is clear by examining the data she presents that these youth spend more time at home, and have significantly less face-to-face interactions with their peers than previous generations. Perhaps not surprisingly, more of them feel socially isolated and left out, and in extreme cases may develop severe anxiety around social situations or become clinically depressed. It seems obvious that more screen time leads to less in-person social interaction, which in turn leads to more loneliness.27 Furthermore, screen time interferes with sleep as well as exercise, which also contributes to depression. Teens have even been noted to text in their sleep when they have their phones in or near their beds, just as people talk or walk in their sleep, and lack of sleep can negatively impact cognitive functions as well and emotional balance.28
Cyberbullying has also become a huge concern for parents and educators, who cannot monitor what they cannot see. In some highly publicized cases, it has become apparent that cyberbullying, which teens can engage with in the comfort of their own home and is notoriously difficult for adults to monitor and control, can result in suicide. In addition to cyberbullying, there can be milder negative effects of constantly looking at social media posts showing “perfect” lives.29 Suicide rates have gone up over the past five years after a two decade decline, which correlates with increased cell phone and social media use among teens.
Positive Effects of Texting and Social Media
Despite the voluminous amount of new information that is becoming apparent about overuse of digital media and, in particular, cell phones, there are some studies by mental health experts who cite positive effects. For teens with mental or physical health issues, texting and online support groups can provide a vital link with others. Some psychologists have noted that texting can improve intergenerational relationships, help people cope with trauma, and improve communication with health experts.30 Texting can also be used for research purposes and even interaction with educational institutions such as museums. Recently, a holocaust educational group used a fictional Instagram account to educate teens about the holocaust. Obviously, there is a huge benefit in the access to facts and information quickly, though most educators know how important it is to curate where the information is coming from.
Positive Effects of Digital Technology on Learning
Many educators have noted the positive effects of digital technology in education.31 Computers are unparalleled in their usefulness for research, not only in access to multiple encyclopedias but also to primary sources, the original of which are housed all over the world. Digital texts such as videos, audiobooks, and podcasts can be more engaging and motivating for students with learning disabilities as well as reluctant readers and learners. Furthermore, digital technology allows students a wide range of choice in how to present information, such as through slides and videos, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with other students in real time, which children and teens find very engaging.
Positive Effects of Digital Technology on Safety
Much research has documented that though members of IGen may be more isolated they are also safer in a variety of ways.32 Most obviously, the bare fact of having one’s phone with them at all times allows one to reach out for help as well as to be located by parents. According to the data examined by Twenge, teens are now more concerned and mindful about safety, learn to drive at later ages, and get in fewer car accidents when they drive. The data on drinking and drugging among teenagers shows declining use. Even incidents of sexual assault are declining, perhaps because more teens stay home now than go out to parties where there are drugs and alcohol. Overall, fewer teens are engaging in risk taking behavior than previous generations.