What does the Internet do to our children’s brains?

Written by David del Rosario on Tuesday December 20th, 2016

David del Rosario

Written by David del Rosario

11 months ago

The Internet phenomenon has completely changed not only our lives but also the anatomy of our brain. We go to the movies on the Internet, we study online, take concerts home thanks to the Internet or even hook up and satisfy our sexual needs virtually.

A study by We Are Social, points out that 77% of Spanish citizens have a connection to the network of networks. Here comes the good bit: how much time do we spend there? On average we spend 3 hours and 47 minutes a day connected to the network via computer to which we have to add a couple of hours more from our mobile. This makes a total of about 5 hours a day connected to cyberspace, which comes dangerously close to the recommended minimum 6 hours of sleep. If this trend continues, in the next few years we will devote more time to the Internet than to sleep.

According to the journal Nature, the limit of the longevity of a human being is 125 years. If, it doesn´t seem much don´t get depressed or dramatic. 100 years ago we also thought that an average person would be lucky to blow out the candles on his 65th birthday and look now. Getting back to our story, if we take an average life of 91 years, humans will spend about 17 years connected to the Internet throughout our lives. Yes, I´ve checked the calculation and it´s correct. How does 17 years connected to the the Internet affect our brains?

 

The cyber-brain

The brain of any living being is a unique fingerprint that changes all the time, and its main objective is to offer us an attractive present. Everything that we modify in the way we live or think carries with it a neuronal modification. In fact, this neural change is what we call adaptation.

For example, a London taxi driver must memorize more than 25,000 different streets and 20,000 landmarks within a 3 year period in order to obtain a license. According to Katherine Woollett, a neuroscientist at University College London, this learning increased gray matter in the hippocampus of taxi drivers by a few centimeters due to the enormous effort that their memories had to make. Once he has obtained his license, if the taxi driver instals a GPS, in a few months his hippocampus will lose volume, adapting to the new situation (very similar to the relationship between our muscles and the gym).

And why doesn´t the brain preserve a muscular hippocampus? Very simple. Keeping a bodybuilder hippocampus requires energy, and if we are going to use a GPS, the brain will never waste its time and money so the hippocampus can show off muscles in order to seduce the frontal lobe. Now this issue has come up, the frontal lobe registers any social change, either in our group of friends or in the way we relate. This will be useful to us later.

In the twenty-first century we have a clear idea that the brain is quite plastic. If Santa Claus brings us an iphone 7 (I hope he´s listening to me from here), and suddenly we start spending hours and hours with the mobile phone, moving our fingers at full speed to write on the tiny keyboard, the cerebral cortex will go up in smoke. A study developed by Swiss researchers, by analyzing the cerebral cortex of the 37 people participating in the experiment, was able to know the time that they devoted to their Smartphone. The impact was patently clear in their brains.

 

The Google Effect

One of the things that has most changed in my day to day use of the Internet is Mr. Google. Mr. Google helps you finish phrases, leaving the expression “I´ve got it on the tip of my tongue” on the verge of extinction. The Internet has become an enormous external brain. Ever since I discovered it, and I was one of those who said “I don´t want that”, I have been living in the cloud.

This is the Google effect. At the University of Columbia, Betsy Sparrow (I´ve already researched for you and she isn´t related to Captain Jack) has conducted 4 experiments in order to determine the impact of the Google giant on our brain. The guinea pigs were her poor students, and I sympathize with them because I was also “invited” to participate in an experiment by the person who, a few months later, would correct your exam (and believe me, you want to keep him/her as happy as possible and your face to look familiar, just in case).

I’m beating around the bush. The conclusion of the experiment was: Why should I l endeavor to answer complicated questions if there is Mr. Google. Sparrow had divided the students into two groups. She asked the first to answer a series of more and less complicated questions, telling them that ten minutes later they could use the Internet to answer them. Obviously, she didn´t let them do that, and took away the forms with their answers. So what happened? Their memory was affected. The second group, which she didn´t allow anywhere near a computer, tried harder and answered the questions significantly better.

This and other studies warn us that the use of the Internet, in the long term, is changing the memory-related cerebral connections (put bluntly, hippocampus and cerebral cortex). Many people interpret this fact as if we young people are atrophying, pointing our finger at the Internet as the executioner of memory, but the truth is that it is only adapting. The Memory has never stopped working. What happens is, that instead of trying to get complex information into the brain, we are choosing to retain how we have to get to the complex information we need, filling our brains with interesting web addresses, forum names or blogs (such as Psiquentelequia).

 

The Facebook Effect

Robin Dunbar at Oxford concluded that brains that have more than 150 friends on Facebook show a greater volume in areas related to emotions and communication skills on brain scanners (what we mentioned before about the frontal lobe ) {Dunbar, 2016 # 199}. The funny thing about the subject is that the brain seems to have a limit because those who had 300 friends didn´t have double the brain volume, but the same. Apparently this has an influence up to a limit. Anyway, as we mentioned at the beginning of this neurocybernetic journey, a century ago we scientists also thought that the maximum limit on life expectancy was 65 and today we are heading for 125 years. By this, I mean that our ability to handle more social relationships will most likely increase. So let´s give it some time.

Leaving friends aside, our brain loves “likes”. A brain that connects to Facebook and sees that its latest publication is brimming with likes, is a happy brain. Researcher Laura Sherman gathered 32 teenage Facebook users in the UCLA Psychology department in Los Angeles and with their permission put them in a functional MRI device. Looking into their brains, she saw the youths´ nucleus accumbens lit up like Christmas trees, when, among the 150 images she showed them, their publications appeared full of “I like you”.

What interests us about nucleus accumbens (What a name! – it could just have been called Joe) is that it is responsible for activating the reward center of the brain and causes our organism to stuff itself with dopamine, generating a neurochemical reaction like when we eat a Ferrero Rocher, or win the lottery. A bit exaggerated, right? For better or worse, that´s what our beloved brain is like.

 

The Internet is changing the way we forget

Writing on the screen of a phone, using Google’s search engine or clicking on something we like, we just discovered, has an impact on our organism. This may surprise us more or less, but in fact whatever we often do or think is represented in some way in our neuronal structure.

All the memories we have of when we were kids, our first flirtations in summer camps or the first job we were exploited in, is stored somewhere in our brain (what really tickles our fancy today, is to think that the memory´s information is stored in the chemical connection that takes place in the synoptic cleft as synapses occur between neurons). Having said that, we forget most things that go through our brain, and we really don´t want to remember that this morning, we picked our nose while we were stopped at a traffic light.

Now, if we take a video of ourselves picking our noses and upload it to Facebook, things change a lot. This is an unnecessary event that both we and the thousands of people who see it will remember because of the impact of the images (I bet it will get millions more likes than this article). The memory of an average human being is a senile grandfather in the grip of Alzheimer’s compared to the memory of Miss Facebook, who is becoming a huge external autobiographical memory for millions of people.

Forgetfulness is one of the main mechanisms of the brain for building an attractive present. We need to start with a clean slate when things don´t go as we expected, so we can start over again. The heart of the question is that we spend on average between 2 and 3 hours snooping on the memories of others or generating new memories with Miss Facebook; first, a photo of me pouting, and then my opinion about the political situation in Spain. Ladies and gentlemen, the Internet does not forget, and we humans need to be able to forget.

 

Why I should not throw my child’s computer out the window

A lifeguard, after pouring the wrong chemical product in a pool and causing slight burns on the swimmers´ skin, told the facts to the media with a mythical phrase: “I really screwed things up.” Well, the Internet is doing the same thing with our brains: it’s screwing it up.

If you are a father or a mother you will surely be thinking: “My God! I’m going to stop reading this article and save my son’s life!” and feel like entering the room and throwing the three or four computers we have at home on average out of the window (don´t forget the phones). Don´t do it.

Of course we have to explain what the Internet means to young people (although many of them realized this years ago), but rest assured: the Internet isn´t doing any harm to our children´s brains. Our brain has adapted to thousands of drastic changes like the Internet, for example language or writing, and none of them made us idiots. On the contrary, they have helped us to develop incredible abilities.

The Internet will not dumb your children’s brains. Although it´s too soon to know where cyberspace will lead us (what capacities will derive from these changes in memory, forgetfulness or reward systems), what we do know is that, in adequate doses, and being aware of what that implies, the use of the Internet is highly recommendable.

 

References

  • Woollett, K.e.a., Acquiring ‘‘the knowledge’’ of London’s layout drives structural brain changes. Current Biology, 2011. 21(24): p. 2109 – 2114.
  • Ghosh, A., et al., Use-Dependent Cortical Processing from Fingertips in Touchscreen Phone Users. Current Biology, 2014.
  • Sparrow, B., J. Liu, and D.M. Wegner, Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science 2011. 333(6043): p. 776-778.
  • Dunbar, R.I.M., Do online social media cut through the constraints that limit the size of o ine social networks? R. Soc. open sci. , 2016. 3(150292).
  • Sherman, L.E., et al., The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media. Psychological Science OnlineFirst, 2016.

 

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