It’s no secret that we’ve become addicted to our devices. The digital world has created endless opportunities—for education, entertainment and distraction. But what is our device obsession doing to our brains?
Gone are the days when waiting in a queue meant daydreaming away the time. Instead, out come the devices for a quick round.
Game developers have tapped into research findings from neuroscience and psychology to ensure we get hooked. They’ve incorporated knowledge of how we get high on rewards and advancing through levels into game design.
This means we can end up wasting time that could perhaps be better spent doing something healthier, like going for a walk in our lunch break or talking with a colleague over coffee.
While device addiction can take its toll on our physical health, what happens to brains that are being bombarded by constant device use?
Research has shown that our brains are wired to respond preferentially to new sights and sounds, and that social information triggers the brain’s reward system. This adds up to an almost irresistible urge to check social media updates, texts and emails. It also explains why we can spend hours surfing the net, oblivious to the time flying by.
One recent study showed that your brain needs 15 to 25 minutes to get back on task after stopping to check emails or updates. While this may not be a big deal if you’re doing a menial task, like loading the dishwasher, it clearly impacts on our ability to complete complex jobs, like those required in a workplace or educational environment.
Another study discovered that people who routinely spend time ‘media multitasking’ (juggling different digital stimuli) tend to have reduced grey matter in the part of their brain involved with higher thought and emotional regulation.
It appears that lots of time on devices overloads the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in willpower and decision-making. People who indulge in lots of it perform worse on cognitive tasks and have more social and emotional difficulties.
This has implications for students, who need their brains working at optimum for comprehending and assimilating new information. Staying focused is crucial for optimal learning.
It’s also relevant in a society where we see people making not-so-smart decisions every day, like texting while driving and binge-drinking.
It’s a particular concern for young people, whose brains are still developing into their early 20s.
Get smart, and turn off the social media notifications and other alerts so you can concentrate on the important stuff, like finishing that assignment or boning-up for an exam. You’ll be doing your brain a favour.
Interfering with brain health isn’t the only dangerous aspect of our online addiction. Every time we go online, we expose ourselves to hackers, who would happily divest us of our money and identity. Hackers are incredibly smart, and constantly developing sophisticated new ways to access our online information.
Use your brain well, and learn the basics about cyber-safety and security, before embarking on any digital adventures.
Whatever your level of addiction to your devices, they’re here to stay. With some added awareness and a bit of smart thinking, we can stay in charge of them, rather than letting them control us.