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Your Brain on Computers

I was curious about how technology, particularly our screens, are changing our brains. This question evolved out of a frustration I have with the physical demands of computer/screen use.

It’s not uncommon to experience eye fatigue, back pain, carpal tunnel, neck pain, and more. And yes, there are things you can do about most of these – get some blue blocker glasses or a screen cover to reduce the blue light hitting your eyes. Almost all the blue light that hits your eyes passes right through to the back of your retina. This not only fatigues your eyes, but can increase the risk of macular degeneration or disease of the retina. Many chiropractors and back specialists will suggest a “standing desk” for back and neck strain – keeping your body upright and your screen at eye level will reduce the “hunched over” position that can make our backs and necks ache. And “text neck” is a real danger, especially to younger kids, who spend so much of their time focused on their cell phone, which in turn keeps their neck bent at an unhealthy angle. And needless to say, just holding the phone and typing away with a couple of thumbs has got to be straining hands and arms.

But when I see someone walking down the street talking – just, talking – I’m taken by surprise. And then I wonder why I’m surprised; they’re simply talking on their phone using ear buds and a mic. But what does that do to your brain? I wondered if maybe walking and talking wouldn’t be a good idea? At least you’re moving, not lying on the sofa. But, in fact, it’s not recommended. Now, I’d be the first to say that perhaps if you go on a regular walk for exercise, and you’re on a lightly traveled street, that might be perfectly fine, especially if you’re simply listening to some music or a podcast, or chatting with a friend or family member.

But, in fact, talking on the phone, or playing a game (I had no idea people did that!) can be so distracting that it can land you in an emergency room! If your attention is diverted, and you’re not focused on where you’re headed, you’re not scanning for dangers around you. More and more people, according to at least one study, have ended up in the ER because they failed to see an on-coming car, walked into a wall, or fell off a curb or into a hole. Another study concluded that younger people suffered from distraction more than their elders, with gait velocity, shortened stride, and increased duration of “double support time” being the biggest culprits. (Double support is when you literally stop walking while walking – you’re not pushing off with one foot and landing with the other because you’re distracted from your “task” of walking.)

Beyond physical punishment, both from the physical demands of devices and the distraction they cause, researchers also conclude that spending so much time with our devices has the potential to heighten attention-deficit symptoms, impair social and emotional intelligence, addict us to our devices, isolate us socially, impair our brain development, and disrupt sleep. Wow.

Those of us who are (ahem) somewhat older will remember the days before the ubiquity and sheer addictiveness of devices, when we would spend hours with a book, or out playing imaginative games with actual humans, climbing trees, riding bikes, or playing kickball. We’d take walks with friends, talk face to face, or join teams or clubs for our socialization. Our parents may have worried about too much TV time, or radio’s influence, or even how much time we might have spend with a computer game or Nintendo. But much as we may have liked our TV time, we didn’t have it at our side quite literally every minute of every day.

While it is also true that computers and the Internet can help us learn, and some games may even teach us new skills or help us enhance already acquired ones, the biggest danger is the constant attention shifting and multi-tasking. We never drop fully into “study” mode when a ping, a color shift, a flashing object, is distracting our full focus and attention from a particular subject or task. Even a brief re-focusing of attention pulls us up out of that “learning” phase, and we have to re-enter it each time we’re distracted.

The younger the subject, tests discovered, the more malleable the brain and therefore the more prone to resulting in serious problems with excessive screen time. One area of particular concern is in learning to recognize facial expressions. Studies have discovered that just the last couple of years of “masking” have slowed very young children’s ability to form words and identify emotions on faces – due to so much less “face” time. When children see simulacra of “faces” in computer games and cartoons, their ability to recognize and identify non-verbal and facial cues decreased markedly with increased exposure.

Other than social isolation, probably the biggest danger faced by all of us, no matter what the age, is addiction. Another serious issue is reduced, and lower quality sleep time. Sleep clinics recommend getting off the devices for an hour or so before sleep, and engaging in reading, listening to music, or even just relaxing with some quiet conversation.

All that said, our devices can have some beneficial effects on our brains as well – learning a language with daily practice; health monitoring devices can remind us to get up and move or have some water or let us know if our heart rate has increased suddenly. Engaging in communities of common interest can even help with social isolation for older people, or people living alone or with limited access to social activities.

As with most things, the best path for most people is finding balance. If you’re
not sleeping well, monitor how much time you spend with a screen. If your health is suffering, consider getting up and walking around once an hour, or do some stretching. If you’re hypervigilant with your phone and checking it constantly for the latest tweet, text, or Facebook post – give yourself a period of time every day when the device gets put away except perhaps for phone calls. Probably the best piece of advice I read was this: your devices exist for your use and benefit, not the other way around.

Nancy Roberts