Is the Internet making us crazy? Thats the question posed by a recent Newsweek article by senior writer Tony Dokoupil. He suggests that neither the technology itself nor the content is responsible for the behavioral changes linked to Internet use.
Instead, Dokoupil cites studies that show actual changes in the brains of Internet users. That isnt a surprise. After all, our brains change whenever we learn something new. We make new synaptic connections and strengthen existing ones as we practice a skill or absorb more knowledge. Thats why the brain of a cabby has a larger right hippocampus the area of the brain involved with spatial memory and musicians have more gray matter in the area of the brain that controls finger movement.
Speech, judgment affected
What researchers are discovering about the changes in the brains of Internet users is more alarming. Imaging studies at UCLA in 2008 and more recent scans of Chinese Internet users show increases in white matter and decreases in gray matter, meaning that the parts of the brain that process speech, memory, motor control, emotion and judgment were smaller than normal. In fact, their scans look remarkably like those of drug addicts.
By themselves, the scans arent proof that Internet use is responsible for the changes. But researchers note the connections between heavy Internet use and an uptick in depression, attention deficits, obsessive behavior, and addiction.
In his new book iDisorder, Larry Rosen describes a survey of 750 teenagers and adults, most who report checking their text messages, email, and social network sites almost constantly. Teens, especially, were plugged into their devices, sending and receiving an average of 3700 texts a month.
We may appear to be choosing to use this technology, Dokoupil writes, but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell.
Scoffers reject thesis
Not surprisingly, the scoffers are plenty. In a Times article refuting the idea the Internet has deleterious effects on behavior, author Maia Szalavitz argues that uncertain times lead to scapegoating and moral panics. In the past, drugs were often named as a threat to society. The Internet, she writes, is simply an updated target.
Other skeptics hold up free will as a reason to doubt the effects of the Internet. People who appear to be addicted are merely indulging in a choice, they argue.
But none of us is in as much control as we like to think we are. We make decisions based on unconscious biases, our emotional states, our past experiences and many more reasons that we may or may not be aware of. We forget that our brains are like our other organs sometimes working well and other times not so much.
That attitude is apparent when we talk about addictions and mental illness of any kind. If someone breaks a leg, we offer sympathy and a cast. If someone is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or an addiction, we offer a moral judgment and advice to try harder, completely ignoring the difficulty of living with a malfunctioning brain.
Our tendency to downplay the role of our brains in our subjective sense of who we are leads us to ignore other important aspects of neuroscience as well. Just as researchers face resistance when they connect Internet use to specific behavioral changes, early childhood education advocates often run into skeptics who dismiss the importance of environmental factors on our brains.
Brain development in children
The North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc., a nonprofit group seeking improvements in the health and well-being of preschool children, last week rolled out a new website, First 2000 Days, as part of their educational outreach. Their message about brain development in children from birth to kindergarten the 2000 days is clear.
Experiences during these 2000 days have a lasting impact on later learning, health and success. That is because childrens earliest experiences literally determine how their brains are wired; lay the groundwork for future health; and form the foundation of the social and emotional skills needed for academic and workplace success.
Critics of investing in early childhood education either dismiss the importance of brain development or argue that the academic gains from the kinds of enrichment suggested on the website arent sustained, though recent studies refute that claim.
Other critics argue that early childhood enrichment works but is the purview of parents, that it is too expensive to be a social or community concern.
That, too, is an argument that misses the larger issue. Helping all parents become more effective and offering children the kind of support needed to grow the best brains they can is in everyones interest. It is an investment in our own future in safer communities with smarter, more productive citizens.