As a large portion of our lives move to cyberspace, we have to examine and act on how these technological ‘revolutions’ and digital ‘transformations’ affect the minds of our young ones.
Most obvious and most concerningly, widely accessible gadgets are being misused by parents to keep children entertained from a very young age. With fast-paced busy schedules of life, this is expected but it’s also a convenience that parents, and ultimately the society as a whole, would have to pay later in life as kids grow less resilient to challenges of reality.
Real life as we know it, isn’t easy. It requires focus, persistent effort and things take time to materialise. Overcoming hurdles require resilience. Patience is needed as things are not always smooth and fast-paced. It requires a high-level of social skill to interact with another human being with respect and dignity.
With those realities in mind, we need to study if technologies that provide better human-gadget interface, and better human-human interaction in cyberspace, actually make us better humans? And better at adapting to the stresses of real life?
Not in the case of unrestrained early exposure.
I posit that early introduction and unrestrained use of gadgets (to babies, toddlers, and young children) involving high-speed, highly-interactive mediums of human interface and high levels of visual and audio stimuli could contribute to a powerful ‘re-wiring’ of human growth and development (both mental and physiological) to be counter-productive in many aspects to what real life entails.
The magnitude of impact depends on age of exposure, frequency, duration, and type of content being accessed. Pure recreational use is likely to be the most potent.
Let’s take digital entertainment via mobile phones for example.
Screens are getting more vivid in terms of extremely rich colour reproduction and high resolution. Movements and appearances in cyberspace look the same as real life, if not more captivating. Combining with next-generation graphics and sounds, these gadgets show a world much more interesting and more interactive than it is in the real world.
Compared to the limitless wonders of cyberspace, real-life appears very mundane. Even adults can be addicted with the quick escapism it provides – what more with children?
Is it strange then if children who are consistently exposed to high-levels of visual and audio stimulation early on in their growth, find it hard to focus in school? Or just focusing on anything, for that matter.
Researchers have indicated strong relationship between excessive screen time (signs of digital technology addiction) to psychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Their minds have been trained to operate at such a high level of stimulation, that real life appears too dull. In all these cases, technology becomes a limiting prerequisite, instead of an enabler for the discovery and utilisation of innate passion and talent.
A new people centric – instead of a purely technology centric – policy and regulatory framework on how early introduction to technology is done in a controlled manner to ultimately serve society in a positive way is needed.
The apparent ‘addiction’ may not be easily recognised as society often associate it with substance abuse, but the habitual impact can be just as real.
The psychological ‘re-wiring’ may be attributed to an over stimulated ‘dopamine’ pathway of the brain, combined with an under-stimulation of other parts.
Dopamine is a pleasure chemical, and it is released in the brain when we eat sweet things, look at someone that we really like, or experience the destructive high from cocaine. Therefore gadget-induced dopamine ‘rush’ could be mimicking these reward pathways.
According to author Lauren Vinopal, the problem is when over-stimulation of the dopamine pathway exhausts the reward system of the underdeveloped brain of a child. Consequently, the brain hungers for more dopamine and become less capable of producing dopamine with lower levels of stimulation – making it harder to enjoy more ‘natural’ experiences.
In short, dopamine stimulation can reinforce our behaviour. In this case, towards a bad habit that exhibits itself as the need to gratify an immediate urge for more stimulation – similar to how drugs induce addiction.
Furthermore, life is more than just mediums of interaction, and certainly not just in education. Even with digital transformation fully implemented in the education system, the very nature of high-speed interaction with gadgets would do little to help develop a generation that is resilient and patient.
A simple search is completed in milliseconds and is further boosted by predictive search and artificial intelligence (AI). Mere finger swipes get you to move from one webspace to another in a lag-less and smooth fashion.
Research is already on the way to integrate our minds with technology so that we don’t even need to lift a finger. The ever-increasing processor and internet speeds exponentially boost this effect further.
With proper use, these are great for productivity, but a premature and unregulated exposure, especially for entertainment, may undermine virtues such as hard work, patience and delayed gratification.
Vinopal also mentioned that the screen-induced dopamine release is weakening children’s ability to control their impulses. Not a surprise with speedy and responsive interaction, to the super-fast content being provided. Instant sources of dopamine boost mean on-demand instant-gratification.
As dopamine also influences many parts of human behaviour and physical functions such as learning, motivation, heart rate, kidney function, mood, attention, sleep, pain processing and many others, the over-rewarded brains of underdeveloped minds – that have operated with mostly high-speed interactions – may find learning, information processing, emotional regulation, social interaction, overcoming challenges, empathising with others, or simply to wait in a queue to be very difficult.
Psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee explains this perfectly as “unless we are intentionally creating opportunities for focus, for delay of gratification, and for boredom, the portions of the brain that regulate these functions have the potential to show less robust, and possibly even diminished function”.
Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.