Mind Change – digital natives or digital defectives?

Many argue the negative impacts of frequent digital use…

The media are filled with articles reporting on the negative impact of digital technologies on the youth of today, often with provocative and sensationalized headlines. Educators and legislators seem equally obsessed with this issue.

Some argue modern technologies have a nefarious effect on our brains. But what does the science tell have to say?

The accusations include that young people are becoming unempathic, passive, intellectually shallow and uncritical, depressed, and attention deficient because of cyber technology.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, a prominent UK neuroscientist and public intellectual warns constantly against the dangers of Internet and digital technology for children and teenagers, cautioning us about the ‘‘unprecedented changes’’ brought about by young people’s interaction with digital technology; and urging us to recognize that the issue is almost as important as climate change. Some will have seen her recently on the popular ABC program Q&A in debate with politicians and a couple of prominent Australian youth leaders. She also recently published a quite controversial book called Mind Change. Greenfield cites many studies, often with inconclusive or contradictory results. However, despite their limitations, these preliminary neuroscientific claims remain immensely influential in the popular press and are currently underpinning policy-making.

But the science suggests otherwise…

Its easy to become convinced about the so-called impending disaster for our next generation given the level and volume of the rhetoric from people as well qualified as the Baroness. But what really is the objective truth? Are young people’s brains really being permanently and detrimentally re-wired through the saturation of digital technologies in their daily lives?

One prominent academic review of the existing science, Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity, states “to our knowledge, most of these studies cited in current debates about the Internet and the brain do not directly investigate relationships between digital media, the developing brain, and cognitive processing.”
“Moreover, the alarmist claims made in the media about the effect of the Internet on the developing brain omit existing data on their possible benefits for young people.”

It is argued by the authors that exposure to digital technologies are enhancing cognitive capacities such as multitasking, “enabling us to live successfully in the accelerated space– time compression of our postmodern world”. In fact, could it be that younger people growing up with digital technologies are in fact developing the skills to parallel-process and encode information quickly enough to be at a distinct advantage to adapt to the high-tech revolution?

They also cite a recent functional neuroimaging study which pointed to the correlation between increased prefrontal cortex activity over age during adolescence and self-reported ability to resist risky, reward-oriented behaviours. Surely an adaptive advantage to a generation of risk takers?

In another apparent contradiction, it is widely believed that keeping the brain active and challenged is essential to our mental health. Plasticity in the adult brain is seen as a positive thing, yet plasticity in the case of adolescence is often framed differently. In fact, the science merely suggests that the adolescent brain is particularly impressionable in response to environmental influences, and whether they are good or bad is still being debated.

The final word…

Given that humans have adapted to constant challenge and change over many millennia, we can at the very least be reassured that our minds have managed to continually adapt to new technologies and that our ‘‘civilization’’ has not crumbled. So on the available evidence it would seem that digital natives will more likely adapt and prosper in our increasingly digital world!
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Strategy Manager at EmpireOne, Craig has a critical look on businesses and their technologies. After years in the media, artificial intelligence and insurance and risk management sectors, his knowledge, skills and experience have positioned him perfectly to advise and put businesses on the right path.