What did people do with their time 20 years ago? How did we ever manage without personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, iPods and 24 hour cable news? The technological landscape is vastly different these days and scientist are wondering just what that means for our brains.
According to research done last year by UCLA scientist Dr. Gary Small, daily doses of technology may be altering the way the brain functions, particularly in social skills. He suggests that all that screen time may weaken the brain circuits involved in face-to-face interactions. He is concerned that fundamental social skills like reading facial expressions during a conversation are being compromised.
Small is particularly concerned about what he calls the digital native, those in their twenties and younger who have been "digitally hard-wired since toddlerhood." As he explained in an Associated Press article, the digital native runs the risk of being socially awkward and isolated by their inability to interpret non-verbal messages from people. He is afraid this may be particularly true in the classroom that still relies on traditional verbal instruction along with interaction with the teacher and other students.
Small argues his case in his book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Altercation of the Modern Mind." He admits that his research about whether or not all this technology is changing brain circuitry is new and ongoing.
Other studies, in fact, have taken the opposite tact by seeing positive outcomes for technology users. A MacArthur Foundation study found that teens feel very connected to each other through online social networking. The study allayed some parents' fears that teenagers are vulnerable to online predators the more time they spend socially on the Internet. "The study found that most teenagers steer clear of dangerous sites and use the Web only for research or to communicate with established friends," according to an article in the Austin-American Statesman.
Parents who are too protective and prohibit computer use for their teens may be keeping their kids out of the broader social loop. The study found that teenagers move between the online social world and the face-to-face interactions with relative ease, one building on the other.
Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University thinks technology may even affect how people learn to read. Technology requires users to gather information quickly, rather than the more methodical and sophisticated methods of comprehending regular reading material. She is studying if this rapid information gathering could be changing the normal brain pathways formed when reading. She is particularly curious about the affect on young children as technology becomes a more integral component of modern classrooms.
As with any new information technology, like 50 years ago with the inclusion of television to the average American home, there will be curiosity and controversy. It is certainly hard to imagine how our brains waited for the morning paper or the evening news to hear what was going on in the world around us. It seems like each generation has a quicker learning curve when it comes to the latest technology. That could just be human nature, or it could be the circuitry of the brain changing and adapting to the technologically saturated world in which we live.