We are not going to weigh you down with details of the anatomical changes caused in the brain by excessive screen use. The summary we present is based on research trials that either tested groups for cognitive functioning or used sophisticated brain imaging to measure the volume of grey matter and white matter, and levels of activation in parts of the brain.
The impacts on brain structure and chemistry from excessive gaming are the easiest to understand, and violent first-person shooter games easiest of all. In these games, the player is presented with a stream of threats and success in the game depends on the speed of the player’s reactions and the accuracy of manipulation of the controls. This repetitive behaviour strengthens cognitive skills related to hand-eye coordination, reflex response and the processing of visual clues. These are relatively primitive skills that use the mid-brain and an area of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the striatum, which coordinate rapid decisions with voluntary physical reactions: recognise and act. It is ironic that the use of modern technology is enhancing the types of skills that were needed in a world where survival depended on seeing the lion before it saw you. We should also point out this activity arouses the fight or flight brain-body systems, keeping you in a state of anxiety.
Almost all of the recreational uses of digital media, when excessive, cause changes in our cognitive brain circuits and functions. Stimuli presented in everything from information surfing to text messaging are repetitive, intense, interactive and addictive. As Nicolas Carr puts it, “[The Net] also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
The internet, or rather how its systems and apps are designed, promotes shallow reading, cursory and fragmented learning, and most of all distraction. The internet is a distraction machine. At any time, there are a half-dozen or more apps vying for your attention. More subtly, when you read from a screen or information surf, your concentration is continuously interrupted by the need to make decisions about which hyperlink to engage. The result is effort and energy are siphoned off to making decisions about which link to click on. The momentary distraction interferes with absorbing meaning.
When we are “reading” on the web, our attention is powerfully
distracted by personal messages, social media alerts, calendar
reminders, ads tailored to our cyber-profile and the lure of many
As a consequence of the distractions and rewards seeking, our brains operate in a relatively shallow level of meaning. Retention is poor. Our ability to sustain attention diminishes. It becomes difficult to read in the undistracted, absorbed mode that occurs when reading a book or linear text on a uni-medium platform (Kindle without hyperlinks). Studies show that the ability to read in the traditional fashion diminishes. The digital industry knows our attention spans are decreasing. A few years ago, website designers’ rule of thumb was the average viewer will spend 15 seconds on a page. In 2018, the standard is about 3-7 seconds. Not long ago, the rule was a promotional video should be no longer than 60 seconds. The standard is now 30 seconds. And, in that 30 seconds, there better be at least 15 different segments, or it is too slow and boring. Typically, there is no linear or story-telling order to segments. There is no time to connect a segment to your world of meaning. The pace is a numbing flash of images that, the theory goes, are registering in emotional centres of the mid-brain. And the pace keeps getting faster as our attention spans shorten–a classic negative reinforcement cycle. We are training our minds to skip like a stone or else sink.
Another effect of high-speed, low cognitive-calorie screen
interaction is a reduction in impulse control. When we try to
concentrate and read slowly enough to fit meaning into our mental
frameworks and process it for intellectual nutrition, we discover our
ability to focus is reduced. Another reinforcement cycle.
Internet gaming, pornography and texting/social media have similar
cognitive repercussions, along with their specific physical, mental and
social side effects.
Your brain is very active when you are info surfing, gaming and working your social media channels. It takes brain power and energy to do these activities. These are tiring activities. In our Screenality section we show how excessive activity may cause stress, exhaust your attention capabilities and make you irritable.