Tony Parkin explores the techno-fear behind media headlines with help from the Nominet Trust
Newspaper headlines warn of threats like “Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim” (Daily Telegraph July 15, 2011), but a timely publication from the Nominet Trust reviews what science really tells us about the impact of the internet on our brains, and those of our children.
The research that generates these kinds of articles usually paints pictures far less dramatic and negative than the headlines suggest. Indeed, the Telegraph story isn't negative and refers to shifts in memory behaviours rather than simply 'poor memory'. So what's the problem?
Every few months flurries of such articles appear, telling of scientific findings that show internet use to be detrimental to our health, our well-being, or that of our children. Whether it is obesity or memory loss, the image of children spending too much time in front of screens is held up yet again in the popular press as evidence of what is wrong with the modern world.
So what does science really have tell us about the impact of the internet on our brains? Dr Paul Howard-Jones, senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education is the author of the Nominet Trust’s new State of the Art Review entitled The impact of digital technologies on human well-being: evidence from the sciences of mind and brain. Alongside this newly-published study he also recently delivered the Annual Nominet Trust Lecture in London, at the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in which he attempted to assess the extent to which the scientific findings support popular fears and anxieties about what technology is doing to us and our children.
The publication, and his lecture, focus on what neuroscience can tell us about the possible effects that using interactive technologies can have on young people’s brains, behaviours and attitudes. Dr Howard-Jones has undertaken a massive study of the literature published in the field, from more than 170 studies, and attempts to draw together what it tells us, or fails to tell us, about the evidence for some of the claims.
Neuroscience shows that even an adult brain retains a level of plasticity
One recent newspaper claim, for example, was that the "internet is rewiring our brains", with sensationalist overtones of Frankenstein, and the suggestion that millennia of evolutionary 'hard-wiring' is being destroyed by a couple of decades on interactive technology. Dr Howard-Jones points out that neuroscience shows that even an adult brain retains a level of plasticity, which means that ‘everyday’ experiences do act to change its connectivity, function and even structure.
“Any experience that leaves a memory, since that memory must have a biological substrate, must have modified our brain," he says. "Observable changes at the level of the brain, therefore, do not imply irreversible outcomes. Instead, they provide a source of evidence that should be considered alongside psychological and behavioural data to address specific questions.”
So if everything we do "rewires our brains", it is therefore not surprising that the use of the internet also influences this plasticity, and a part of the way we all all learn and develop.
The review is helpfully divided into sections, each examining a different aspect of interactive technology use, and the scientific evidence base for impact on health and well-being. Topics such as social networking, brain training, sleep, excessive use of the internet and others are explored in turn, and we are helpfully guided through what neuroscience can tell us on the subject. Most informatively, each is summarised in terms of "what we know" and "what we do not know". In many cases it becomes clear that many of the wilder newspaper claims imply that we know far more from the science than is, in fact, the case. And that there is still much to learn.
The report goes on to make some clear and helpful recommendations:
- “Parents and their children would benefit from clearer independent information about where a significant body of research indicates the potential risk of a particular type of technology application. In order to allay fears and diminish distraction from the more significant risks, parents would also benefit from knowing where evidence does not exist to support concerns headlined in the popular press.
- "Academic achievement and student well-being would also benefit from schools having access to a brief curriculum and teaching material aimed at delivering skills for the ‘hygienic’ use of internet and digital technology. These resources would help schools equip their students with the knowledge and understanding required to guide their own use of technology.
- "The ability to understand risk: that is, an appreciation of the likelihood and consequence of a possible outcome, is also something that requires further consideration. This review highlights levels of risk associated with the use of digital technology that are different to those portrayed in the popular press.
- "Therefore, a further recommendation is to support parents, in particular, in their attempts to assess and act upon such risks. This requires support from the wider research community as well as the development of resources that present current research data in an accessible way.”
In bringing together the latest research in this way, not only can we begin to understand its implications, but also we can see the significant limitations of the existing evidence base. Hopefully this will help steer further and future research, and also perhaps counter some of the more sensational headlines with which we are becoming all too familiar. When some have suggested that we are facing an "unprecedented crisis" in which "the human brain... is under threat from the modern world", that "our love of the latest technology could be turning into a 21st century addiction", that Facebook is "infantilising" us and Google is "degrading our intelligence", we are certainly in need of some objectivity.
The impact of digital technologies on human well-being: evidence from the sciences of mind and brain.
RSA website: Nominet lecture information
RSA/Nominet lecture: audio recording
Dr Paul Howard-Jones, University of Bristol Graduate School of Education
Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim (Telegraph)
Huffington Post Study: Google Changes The Way We Remember Things (Video)