How internet culture is rewiring us
by Paul Kendall – 17/03/13, 12:18 AM
Survey: Four out of five 18 to 30 year-olds are unable to navigate without the help of a satnav device. Photo: Louie Douvis
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The digital age has already changed the way we shop, work and play. But what effect is it having on us as a species?
It’s becoming harder to concentrate. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr quotes a research project at Stanford University in which cognitive tests were given to a group of “heavy media multi-taskers” and a group of “relatively light” multi-taskers.
The heavy multi-taskers were much more easily distracted by “irrelevant environmental stimuli” and less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task.
On the plus side, young people today have skills their predecessors lacked. They are adept at finding and filtering information, responding to stimuli and doing fast, incisive analysis.
As “digital natives” who have grown up with the internet, they are used to technological change, while “digital immigrants”, who grew up before the internet, find it hard to keep up.
An experiment led by University of California, Los Angeles’ Gary Small showed how the web can change our brains in a matter of hours.
Twelve experienced web users and 12 novices used Google while their brains were scanned. In the area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which deals with short-term memory and decision-making, the newcomers showed hardly any activity, whereas the web veterans lit up the screen.
Six days later, after the novices had been told to spend an hour a day online, the two groups’ brain scans were virtually identical.
Constant communication makes you anxious, especially if you monitor emails, text messages, status updates and BlackBerry Messenger as closely as the average teenager.
It creates “a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop”, says psychotherapist Michael Hausauer. There is even an acronym for this phenomenon: Fomo – fear of missing out.
A Stanford study found that the digital generation is learning to socialise differently. Researchers discovered students prefer to text a classmate down the hall in their dormitory rather than talk in person because it is “less risky” and “less awkward”. So they don’t learn how to read facial expressions or navigate “real world” social situations.
A survey published earlier this year found that four out of five 18 to 30 year-olds are unable to navigate without the aid of a satnav device.
Other basic practical skills are vanishing too. A US study in 2006 of 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds found that only 15 per cent used joined-up writing. Most used block capitals, like a child.
Thanks to the digitisation of our contact books, we can no longer remember phone numbers. According to recent research, one in three Britons under 30 can’t even remember their own number.
And it is now so easy to find information via Google that we’re getting worse at remembering any facts at all. Four experiments published in the journal Science in 2011 found that people struggle more than ever before to retain information.
The internet encourages procrastination. According to research collated by Piers Steel, professor of psychology at Calgary University, the number of people admitting to procrastination has risen from 15 per cent in 1978 to 60 per cent today.
It can’t be blamed entirely on the internet, he says, but we work in “motivationally toxic” environments.
“At the flip of your wrist, there’s YouTube, chat rooms, jokes, humour. Whatever’s your poison, it’s all out there.”
Thanks to the superficial way we consume information, we’re becoming less empathetic.
MRI scans have shown that when we read something closely, the areas of the brain that light up are not just those associated with attention, but also those involved in movement and touch. This suggests that when we immerse ourselves in a piece of writing like a novel, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes. When we read something superficially, we don’t.
Many studies have shown the internet is addictive. One by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan demonstrated brain changes in heavy web users similar to those hooked on drugs or alcohol.
Other studies have shown changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and self-control.
One psychiatrist has even identified a condition he calls Facebook addiction disorder. Symptoms include letting Facebook interfere with your sleep or work, spending more than one hour a day on the site, and being filled with fear or panic at the thought of deleting your account.
The types of friends we make is changing. Smartphone apps now send you an alert when they detect people nearby with whom you share interests. As this phenomenon intensifies, our circle of friends will increase but those friends will come from a narrower cross section of society. We’ll become more tribal and less exposed to people with interests or beliefs different from our own.
Talking in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said privacy was no longer a “social norm”. In the future, data on our habits and movements – where we’ve been and what we’ve done – will be available to anyone who wants to know.
Thanks to image-recognition software, we’ll be able to identify anyone who we point a phone at; when we shop online, prices will be tailored according to our income and willingness to pay; and when we go to the airport, aviation authorities will know so much about the minutiae of our lives it will no longer be necessary for us to queue for security.
In fact, there is so much personal data on the web that Eric Schmidt, the co-founder of Google, has warned that teenagers might be forced to change their names one day in order to escape their cyber past.
The way we communicate is making us worse people to be around. We are ruder. An Ofcom report found that 51 per cent of adults and 65 per cent of teenagers say they have used their smartphone while socialising.
Baroness Susan Greenfield says: “We may be in danger if we are creating an environment for the next generation where a premium isn’t put on eye contact, body language and hugging someone.”
The skills required for video games are being harnessed to useful ends in education, health and even geo-politics.
The US Navy has already used their Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet to crowd-source strategies for combating Somali pirates. And a recent study of Italian medical students found that an hour of Nintendo Wii a day made them much better surgeons.
The internet is in danger of turning us into a nation of “cyberchondriacs”. Before Google, researchers at London’s Maudsley Hospital estimated that up to 13 per cent of patients in doctors’ surgeries were hypochondriacs. Now GPs estimate a day a week is spent dealing with patients who have diagnosed themselves online. Last year, worldwide sales of mobile health apps reached £86 million ($A124 million).
Searching and browsing on the internet exercises the brain in a way that is similar to solving a crossword puzzle. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says this constant stimulation keeps older people’s minds sharp.
Today, osteopaths do a roaring trade treating “text neck” and “iPad shoulder”. But RSI will soon be a thing of the past; these are symptoms of a technology that will quickly be superseded.
Within 10 years, thanks to “wearable” smartphones, we will be operating screens of all kinds far less. Instead, everything we presently see on computers, games consoles, tablets or smartphones will be projected in front of our eyes and we will use hand gestures and voice commands instead of keyboards, mouse clicks or iPhone “swipes”.
Even the way we die is changing: “digital estate handling” is a boom industry. Companies such as LegacyLocker store clients’ passwords to their email, eBay or social media accounts and give these to a designated loved one after the client dies.
Other sites create customised online grave sites. Loved ones can add “tribute gifts” such as roses, candles, stuffed animals and other items, while mourners can access photos and videos in a “memory book”.
The Telegraph, London