With so many of us now constantly tethered to digital technology via our smartphones, computers, tablets, and even watches, there is a huge experiment underway that we didn’t exactly sign up for.
Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, even Vox (if we’re being completely honest) are competing for our attention, and they’re doing so savvily, knowing the psychological buttons to push to keep us coming back for more. It’s now common for American kids to get a smartphone by age 10. That’s a distraction device they carry in their pockets all the time.
The more adapted to the attention economy we become, the more we fear it could be hurting us. In Silicon Valley, we’re told more parents are limiting their kids’ screen time and even writing no-screen clauses into their contracts with nannies. Which makes us wonder: Do they know something we don’t?
If it’s true that constant digital distractions are changing our cognitive functions for the worse — leaving many of us more scatterbrained, more prone to lapses in memory, and more anxious — it means we’re living through a profound transformation of human cognition. Or could it be that we’re overreacting, like people in the past who panicked about new technologies such as the printing press or the radio?
To find out, we decided to ask experts: How is our constant use of digital technologies affecting our brain health?
The answers, you’ll see, are far from certain or even consistent. There’s a lot not yet known about the connection between media use and brain health in adults and kids. The evidence that does exist on multitasking and memory, for instance, suggests a negative correlation, but a causal link is still elusive. Still, many of the researchers and human behaviour experts we spoke with still feel an unease about where the constant use of digital technology is taking us.
“We’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent,” Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, told us. But what are the results of the experiment?
Our conversations were edited for length and clarity.
The ability to voluntarily regulate attention is more developed in humans than other species. As William James, the great psychologist, wrote in 1890, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will.”
But we are becoming impaired in that capacity, globally. We’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent. This is happening insidiously under the radar.
This, to me, underscores the urgency of training our minds with meditation so we don’t have to check our phone 80 times a day.