by Brandy Abalos

Technology is a large part of life. From work to play and even relaxing at home, we have integrated devices into every action we take. However, sometimes all the focus on screens can seem overwhelming. Many feel fatigued and experience other physical and mental side effects. Scientists and medical experts agree that technology can negatively and positively impact our lives.

Technology Has Experienced Exponential Growth

Technology use has revolutionized the way societies interact worldwide. Approximately 95% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 use digital media, which includes a smartphone or tablet. They check digital content an average of every 12 minutes. Estimates suggest that more than 20% of all adults are online at least 40 hours per week. This estimate includes work, school and recreation time.

More than 4.5 billion people have access to the internet, and the speed at which everyone else is getting connected is astonishing. Technology and digital media have seen an exponential growth over the last few decades.This progress has had an impact on our brains. In some respects, we have yet to be able to adapt as quickly as technology has progressed. The human brain is very malleable and digital changes have the potential to make significant differences in the way that children and adolescents develop as well as the way that adults age.

The Impact of Rapid Technology Evolution on The Human Brain

One of the most profound findings regarding whether digital media affects the brain involves the relationship between using fingertips on touchscreens and changes in cortical activity. Cortical activity reflects how external stimuli create spontaneous activity within the brain.

It is well known that cortical space is assigned to the tactile receptors on fingertips and is influenced by how often a person uses their hands. For example, individuals who play stringed instruments have more cortical neurons allotted to the fingers they use to play those specific instruments. This phenomenon is called “cortical plasticity of sensory representation.” It is not limited to musicians. The repeated finger movements of individuals using technology like smartphones and tablets could alter the cortical space within the brain to allocate neurons appropriately.

In fact, researchers found that with repeated finger movements on touchscreens, the measurements of cortical potentials of the thumb, middle and index fingers increased. This data was compared to individuals who used technology that did not have touchscreens.

The results of studies demonstrate that repetitive touchscreen use can reshape sensory processing in the fingertips by increasing the number of neurons associated with those fingers in use. However, studies did not determine if the neurons were an expansion of cortical representation in the fingertips or if they were at the expense of other motor coordination skills. This missing information is essential in determining whether this technological change in the brain is negative or positive.

Concerns of The Impact of Technology on Children

Parents and experts alike have been concerned about how technology impacts brain function and structure in growing minds. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) published guidelines with suggestions about screen time for children. They also issued recommendations for smartphone usage in schools. They made these suggestions after studies showed that intense digital media use could result in reduced memory capacity, psychological problems, sleep disorders and difficulty with text comprehension.

Scientists determined that when children use printed books, they tend to perform much better in several cognitive areas. These findings may be associated with how LED screens impact the way young people interpret facts. Additionally, locating information on a page in a book is linked to sensory cues that boost recall.

Children who use digital reading tools have different habits than those who use traditional books. They have a much shorter attention span and tend to multitask from one item to the next. Some researchers even suggest that overuse of technology may be associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which impacts an increasing number of people.

Other studies have disputed these results, claiming that childhood technology use is neither good nor bad per se. Instead, it depends on how children use digital media. The length of time and tasks children use their technology for can make a difference in their cognitive abilities. The purpose people use their smartphones, tablets and other screens for and how often is just as crucial as other parameters and needs more consideration.

The Developing Brain and Media

Technology has been proven to affect the developing brain, including motor skills, language, cognition and perception of visual objects. Studies have shown that digital media directly impacts the optical system’s development, which can affect the development of these other areas.

In one study, researchers challenged adults to play the video game Pokémon. The study found that only adults with extensive experience with Pokémon during childhood had distinct distributed cortical responsiveness to the Pokémon figures on the screen. They displayed aspects of facial recognition to the
animal-like humanized characters. This data indicated that digital media can create unique and long-lasting impressions of figures and objects on the mind, even decades later.

Scientists have yet to conclude if the data in studies indicate increased brain plasticity when children are introduced to technology at a young age. Object permanence is positively associated with technology use. However, experts do not know if this applies to anything other than digital media, like video games.

Cognitive Empathy and Technology Use

While adults tended to remember humanized characters in a video game after reintroduction through technology, children have shown decreased recognition of emotions. Specifically, studies indicate a direct correlation between time spent on technology and lower cognitive empathy for young adults. This
connection is likely due to a need for insight into how others think and facial recognition problems. Young people do not have the same references as the adults who did the Pokémon study.

Without any prior understanding of human emotions, children and adolescents often get lost in their technology. Their digital media interactions do not give them an accurate picture of how people feel. They do not know how to interact with others who have emotional situations that need reactions.

In fact, not only do technology-immersed young people struggle with empathy and handling others’ emotions, but they also have problems dealing with their own for the same reasons. They have not had good real-life examples. Digital media has presented a false picture that is easy to misunderstand. While technology can bring people together, especially those who are far apart, excessive online time results in a lack of exposure to peers and real-life emotions. For this reason, technology appears to impact cognitive empathy negatively.

Technology and The Aging Brain

The overall impact of technology on the brain may not only depend on total consumption time and the cognitive domain involved. It may also depend on age. The effects of digital media on a preschool-aged child will be very different from adults or the elderly.

Brain aging is both genetically determined and dependent on lifestyle. It is possible to use technology to have a positive effect on the aging brain. One study determined that digital media increased the attention span of elderly subjects who played computer games consistently over two months. The
cognitive effects included more neural activity, improved neuron interaction and better structural  plasticity. Individuals who spent time performing a training task had a better linear correlation with the task and time.

Other studies have also supported the use of technology in promoting a healthy aging brain. Brain training programs can decrease the negative aspects of aging and increase cognitive capacity. The same technology that causes attention to suffer for young people actually helps older individuals.

Avoid Negative Effects of Technology on The Brain

The best way to avoid the negative effects of technology is to turn off devices at appropriate times. Statistics indicate that people check their devices as much as once every 12 minutes, which is
unnecessary. Even a work email can wait longer than 15 minutes. It is appropriate for someone to avoid technology when relaxing or enjoying others’ company in person. These times might include social gatherings, first thing in the morning or before bed. Many families find it beneficial to combine these times with “no tech” zones in their homes to promote calm and well-being.

Promote The Positive Impacts

Studies have shown that technology can positively impact many of the tasks people undertake and their communication skills. Whether a person is using technology to introduce new information or generate cognitive recognition, they should carefully choose the type of device they use and evaluate how long they should use it to benefit them in the moment.

Technology can be an essential element to aging with ease for older individuals. Many tasks that negatively impact younger people can significantly affect the elderly. Brain training through technology should be considered, along with relying on devices to boost communication skills for older people.

How Does Technology Impact Our Overall Success?

Technology has impacts on the brain—both good and bad. However, it’s more difficult to determine how devices affect success. Answering this question is challenging mainly because the definition of success is subjective.

Success, technically, is the accomplishment of a goal. People can have many undertakings at once, some of which may be successful while others do not. Technology may affect each endeavor differently.

Data indicates that technology helps some people focus, multitask and interact with the world. It can even help a person gather information about people in a manner that is easier to digest.

However, it also creates challenges for people with little experience with situations outside of a screen. If a person has a non-technological reference, they are more likely to understand how to interact during an event appropriately and how to achieve success in that situation.

Society Expects People To Achieve Success Through Technology

It’s worth noting that society tends to expect people to use technology. Most workplaces provide employees with computers, and school children have Chromebooks from a young age. Even children as young as three have smartphones, and toddlers use tablets. Society expects everyone to use technology to achieve any goal. Pushing back against the use of technology may even make others think someone is a failure. Some may view that person as failing to achieve their purpose because they didn’t document it and present it with technology. This misunderstanding is widespread for adolescents and young adults, both at work and in their personal lives.

Using Technology’s Effect on The Brain To Achieve Success

Studies have established that technology can boost multitasking, memory and cognitive plasticity. It can also complicate these areas for some individuals. However, it is possible to harness these positive effects on the brain to achieve a successful outcome. For example, the brain may begin to shut down if someone
is overwhelmed. In a sense, the person cannot process new information. Technology can help them manage those tasks and place them into an order that makes them easier to achieve. Keep in mind that technology will not likely help with all endeavors. Since digital media tends to decrease cognitive empathy, it is best to avoid heavy technology use for tasks involving high social interaction. It may cause a person to miss important social cues and cause failure.

The Brain Can Adapt Technology to Achieve Success

The brain reacts very differently to technology depending on the individual’s age, how they use it and for how long. One cannot say that technology is either good or bad for the brain. Its effect on the brain varies according to many factors. A young person who spends too much time on technological
devices will likely see many negative effects from their addictive type usage. However, if managed moderately, that same technology can help them achieve success in school and move on to a career in any field.

An older person will likely greatly benefit from usingtechnology regularly, especially if they undergo a brain training program. Many negative aspects of aging can be reversed and delayed with the strategic use of technology. The critical takeaway is that technology can mold the brain, primarily when used regularly. It can have many negative and positive effects on the brain. However, when used responsibly,
technology is beneficial to individuals as well as society.