Updated: Nov 11, 2019
My generation has never known a world without electronic media: television, smartphones, personal computers, tablets, screens everywhere. I grew up with the same exposure to media that most kids born after 9/11 had; watching movies and cartoons, playing games on my parents’ phones, absorbing a steady stream of images and information. Then at the end of elementary school, I transferred to a Waldorf school, where I was exposed to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy that children shouldn’t use media. What, no TV? While having media taken away was difficult, I have come to appreciate my freedom from a prevalent addiction. I don’t have a cell phone, social media, or my own laptop, but I do use computers for their original purpose: research and education. Even with such limited exposure, I am still tempted by the allure of social media and the Internet, though, and I want to understand whether the consequences of using a computer are actually worth avoiding. My question is: what are the consequences? The global and economic growth of society have been huge because of these technological advancements, but what happens to the human brain when we use these sophisticated machines so constantly? How do we change? Should we change? What are the pros and cons of computer use?
What happens to the human brain when we use these sophisticated machines so constantly?
One of the biggest concerns around computers and the Internet is how they affect our focus. “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain” by Tim Wu addresses how modern computers harm our concentration. This New Yorker article begins with a few examples of famous feats of concentration; Franz Kafka writing “Das Urteil” for eight hours in a row, Jack Kerouac laboriously piecing together “On the Road” for weeks on end, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designing a working video game prototype in four straight days (Wu). Wu then poses the question: “Would their feats be harder today, or easier?” Humans have a difficult time focusing on a task when faced with the powerful distractions of the Internet. Wu argues that while computing technology has greatly advanced, so has the potential for and reality of distraction. Wu explains how the early computers had screens and processing for many people to use them at the same time, but never for more than one activity per user. Computers are now “‘distraction machines’ that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier." Wu concludes that we need computers that are created to intentionally promote concentration, lessen distraction, and that take the limits of the human brain into consideration. I agree with Wu’s assertion that computers often waste time that they could potentially save, and that some major changes, such as one-function-at-a-time computers, would improve our focus and productivity as individuals.
Looking for a source with a different stance, I was surprised to find that most opinion articles and scientific studies addressing the issue of the computer and the brain follow along the same line: there are clearly benefits to using media, but the effects on us are not good. “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price” by Matt Richtel explores a few of the effects of computers in our personal lives and brains through the case of one family, and also includes broader scientific research. This New York Times article describes the life of Mr. Kord Campbell and how it is impacted by heavy use of technology, ranging from playing video games alone on his family vacation to nearly missing a $1.3 million deal due to a hectic, overfull monitor. The piece is from 2010, when the Campbell family presented a fairly extreme example, but it seems that now, nearly a decade later, the constant presence of media is a societal norm. I chose the article for its broad and balanced view, and unlike the New Yorker article, it contained hard data, mostly on the increase in technological use since the twentieth century and the reality of multitasking. As a multitasker myself, I was alarmed to read that engaging in multiple activities at once not only reduces productivity, but increases stress, even afterward.
I am even more grateful for my limited screen time.
I was surprised by my findings. These articles only addressed a few aspects of my question of computers impacting brains, but so much of the information was new to me. Both articles agreed that our pinging devices and the multitasking made possible by technological advances contribute to a fragmented consciousness and a lack of focus. When we have the constant need to check our email or Instagram feed, our clarity of thinking is disturbed, and we have difficulty being fully present in our lives. Now that I am more aware of a few of the mental impacts of using modern computers and the Internet, I am even more grateful for my limited screen time. I also wonder about what other areas of our lives are influenced besides our minds: How does social media alter our emotions or relationships? How does screen time modify our eyes, posture, or sleep? My sources also raised new questions about the practical implications of this knowledge: Can the negative impacts be reversed or at least minimized? Could a computer be made or used that has no negative effects? And what do we do in the meantime?