July 15, 2022
Each of us has at one time or another dealt with a question that concerns everyone. With “Ask Leibniz!” you can send us your question to science.
“How does the human brain adapt to the ever-increasing complexity of technical devices (example: corded telephone in the past and smartphone today)? At what stage of development (infant – child – adolescent – adult) does this happen?”
Scientists all over the world are currently researching how modern digital devices affect our brain and behaviour. The focus of interest is less on complexity and more on the extent and type of use of digital media. Complexity is probably given less attention because, although this measure basically describes the property of systems, it also depends heavily on the user. For the inexperienced user, for example, using a smartphone can be incomprehensible and difficult, while the experienced user interacts with such a “complex system” without any effort.
Basically, we still know little about how digital media change the brain and its functioning. However, new evidence suggests that frequent use of digital technologies can have significant effects – both negative and positive – on brain function and behaviour, and at every age and developmental stage. Specifically, the potentially harmful effects of extensive digital media use include attention deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development and sleep disturbances.
Brain needs a break
For example, several studies have linked computer use or intensive screen time (e.g. television, video games) to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although most of these studies involved children and adolescents, this association has been found in people of all ages. The reason for the link between technology use and attention problems is still unclear, but could be due to strong demands on attention skills and multitasking when using digital media. It is assumed that these demands can affect the so-called executive functions. Executive functions are brain processes that are relevant for controlling goal-directed behaviour and also play an important role in regulating emotions, cognition and behaviour. In addition to directly affecting these important brain functions, people who are constantly using digital media generally have fewer opportunities to interact offline and allow their brain to rest in its default mode.
For young children in particular, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about excessive use of digital media. At this age, the brain’s plasticity is at its greatest, meaning the brain is particularly malleable. In a recent study, children under the age of 2 were found to spend more than 1 hour a day in front of a screen; by the age of 3, it was even more than 3 hours. Increased screen time was associated with poorer language development and executive functions. In infants, increased screen time was one of several factors that predicted behavioural problems and was associated with poorer early language development.
Screen use can disrupt sleep
In a study of children aged 8 to 12, more screen time and less reading time were found to be associated with reduced brain connectivity between regions responsible for word recognition and linguistic and cognitive control. These neural connections are thought to be important for reading comprehension and suggest negative effects of screen time on the developing brain. Structurally, increased screen time is associated with decreased integrity of white matter pathways necessary for reading and language.
Recent studies further suggest that screen use disrupts sleep, which can negatively impact cognition and behaviour. Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers was shown to negatively affect falling asleep, sleep duration and nighttime awakenings. In adolescents and adults, prolonged use of smartphones and touchscreens was associated with greater sleep disturbance, shorter sleep duration and less efficient sleep. Poor sleep quality is thought to be linked to changes in the brain, such as reduced functional connectivity, reduced grey matter volume and increased risk of age-related cognitive impairment.
Positive benefits of computer programmes
Despite these harmful effects of digital technologies on brain development and health just mentioned, recent evidence also points to benefits, particularly for the ageing brain. Certain computer programs and video games can improve memory, multitasking skills, as well as intelligence skills that rely on problem solving, reasoning, quick action and encoding new experiences.
Functional imaging scans show, for example, that older adults with no previous internet experience show a significant increase in neural activity in the brain when learning to search online. These results suggest that online searching can be a kind of neural training for the brain and that the brain responds with appropriate neural adaptations. Computer games can also improve the so-called multitasking skills of older people. These abilities decline linearly in the course of life. In one study, volunteers aged 60 to 85 were trained for four weeks with a video game called NeuroRacer, which allowed players to drive a car on a winding road while exercising their multitasking skills. After completing the training, the participants showed a remarkable improvement in performance scores that not only surpassed those of untrained individuals in their twenties, but were also maintained for six months without additional training. In addition, the multitasking training also improved other cognitive skills, such as working memory and attention skills.
Brain function can be enhanced, but also damaged
Recent research generally suggests that video games can have benefits for cognitive abilities, despite possible negative health effects of excessive gaming (e.g. attention deficits, social withdrawal). It has been shown that playing action video games more than four days per week (at least one hour per day) over a period of six months improves visual and spatial attention, as well as the ability to switch quickly between tasks. Furthermore, such research suggests that playing action video games can improve cognitive and motor skills, leading, for example, to improve the surgical skills of doctors and reduce the error rate in the operating room.
In summary, research on the effects of digital technologies on brain development and health provides multiple clues about how the brain adapts to interacting with these technologies at any age, both enhancing and damaging brain function. Future research needs to further elucidate the underlying mechanisms and causal relationships between technology use and brain adaptation, focusing on both the positive and negative effects of digital technology use.