The down side of visibility

Balance the benefits and drawbacks of being in the spotlight.

Technology and our reliance on it is limiting our critical thinking capabilities and ultimately harming our brains — but can we stop it?

A photo of a young women wearing black shorts and a white tank top hunched and crouched forward inside a white box. The side of the box is open. Surrounding the box is cut grass.
Photo by Aləx Buchan via Unsplash

When I was a kid, I used to go to bible camp every summer. I wasn’t religious, so I didn’t have the best time, but I found out that if you recited bible verses from memory, they would give you candy. And the longer the verse, the more candy you would get. So I would quickly memorize pages of the Bible, and at the end of camp, I would have this glorious bag of candy.

I’ve been thinking about this time recently because my focus, learning, and memory were all amazing, but I don’t feel that way anymore. Not that my brain has completely gone downhill — I’m still smart and feel motivated, but I have noticed my concentration and memory are not what they used to be.

It’s because technology is harming our brains.

So, to back up, all that work I had to put in to get my bible candy is called delayed gratification, where I had to do a series of hard tasks to get a reward. But now, instead of making our brains work for things, we are getting instant gratification — primarily through technology and in stuff like TikTok and social media, online shopping, or even online dating.

But how is this instant gratification harming us?

Three ways technology is harming us

Unlimited dopamine

The first is dopamine. The instant gratification we get from technology allows us to access dopamine frequently. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in our brain that makes us feel good. Essentially, it’s why we want the greasy, delicious hamburger over the green salad.

Dr. Anna Lembke, from Stanford University, studies addiction, and she says that because we are getting infinite access to dopamine through social media, we’re forming addictions to it. It’s why, on average, we spend 6 hours a day online and two and a half of those hours are spent on social media.

Dopamine also causes us to spend a lot of time in the limbic area of our brain, which is responsible for our emotions, instead of the pre-frontal cortex, which helps us plan for the future and problem-solve — not an ideal mix. And even worse, when we do get the chance to solve a problem, we’re offloading it to Google.

The Google Effect

Traditionally, we learn by committing information to memory, but because we can look up any information at any time, we don’t need to retain things in our own memory. We’re offloading our retention and memory to Google. In 2011, Harvard researchers coined the term ‘The Google Effect’ when they found that when we’re faced with a difficult question or problem, instead of knowing how to answer it ourselves, we’re instead really good at knowing where to find the answer — our trusty searching tool, Google.

Digital dementia

And the final point is why I deleted Instagram from my phone this week. It’s called digital dementia.

A Canadian University recently found that excessive use of screen time during brain development years increases our risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia in adulthood. They found that because we have this chronic sensory stimulation from social media, young adults are showing signs of ‘mild cognitive impairment,’ which is usually only seen in people with brain injuries or older adults when they have early stages of dementia.

These researchers also predict that at the end of this century, Alzheimer’s and dementia-related illnesses are expected to grow 4 to 6 times more than what they are now. Yikes!

So it’s not hard to imagine a world in 40 or 50 years — or scarily, even now — where we are suing TikTok or Instagram for the destruction of our minds. Basically, anyone born after 1980 will be affected by this. We will not be able to remember things, we won’t be able to process information, and it will be tough to focus.

It’s weird to think about when we’re still young and healthy, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are probably feeling distracted or already have trouble remembering or are even addicted to our devices.

And, of course, not all technology is bad. It’s used for good every day. But there’s a difference between technology that helps us and hinders us.

So, how do we stop the bad technology from harming us?

Make your brain work

It’s not realistic to ask everyone to delete their Instagram accounts, so we need a way to use them still but without harm. We can do this by delaying gratification. We have to work for the bible candy. Do some chores, get some homework or work done, go to the gym, read a chapter of a book — and then give yourself the reward of phone time.

We’re making our brains work to get something by delaying gratification and reducing destructive habits.

Offset the harm

And secondly, we need to offset the harm these technologies are causing us. We need to stay mentally active for 1–2 hours per day. Mentally active means anything that engages our brain in processing information. This includes puzzles, art, language learning, playing games or musical instruments, reading, or writing.

These technologies — they’re going to be harming us in the future. They’re already affecting us, but we can all do something about it.

Remember, you are in charge of your attention, time, and life.

Is technology harming our brains? was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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