A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

In the last few years, scientists have been studying how the pervasiveness of the Internet and social media has impacted children’s cognitive and social development. All that research about BFFs texting one another is leading to some sobering conclusions that may not leave parents LOL. According to Nielsen, teenagers 12-17 send the most texts — an average of 2,272 texts each month. Such a reliance on text messages for relationships is stunting children’s social development, in particular, their ability to read body language, voice tone, and subtle social cues as well as being able to experience “being in the moment” without being distracted by incoming messages. Furthermore, heavy Internet use leads to increases to violent and aggressive behavior.

A study published by Pediatrics also found that increased exposure to the Internet (“screen media”) may have a negative effect on attention. Diagnosis of ADHD has been on the rise over the past decade. Although research does not prove that screen media directly causes ADHD, researchers believe it might play some role. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health noted that the Internet addict is obsessed with Internet usage (online gaming, texting, tweeting, etc.) and its use often interferes with everyday life and decision-making ability. Internet addicts experienced very real withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, moodiness, and depression. It is only a matter of time before teenagers turn to dark alleyways buying black market mobile devices and smartphones from shadowy “data peddlers” for their daily Internet fix.

Internet addiction is certainly recognized by practicing clinicians; however it will not be included in the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM editors claim there is not enough research to support that diagnosis. The last time the DSM was revised was over 12 years ago which begs the question: why has it taken so long to update this book? Could it be that the editors have been distracted by online gaming and tweeting, losing focus of the day-to-day editing of the book?

FYI: if parents have been worried about their children these past few years, it’s time they started to worry about themselves. New research shows that Internet usage is modifying adult cognitive functioning. Consider that the average American spends about 12 hours consuming information — heaping tablespoons of data that amount to about 100,000 words (34 GB) of data — OMG! Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, recently published her findings in Science magazine that describe three specific impacts on how adults process information in the age of Google. In her study: (1) subjects who didn’t know the answer to a question thought first about where they could find the nearest web connection rather than thinking about the question’s subject matter, (2) subjects had better recall on information only when told that the information would not be saved (in other words, when information is not saved, subjects worked harder to encode and memorize the information) and  (3) the expectation of subjects that they will be always be able to locate some information at a later time forms a memory not of the facts but of where the information can be looked up. All this boils down to one simple thing: as a race, we are trading in neural connections for mobile devices with good WiFi connections. If there is any hope for humanity, it rests with the legions of dedicated Jeopardy contestants, representing the apotheosis of rote memorization, who are the flesh-and-blood keepers of the world’s knowledge — from the trivial to the consequential. TTYL.

Sources: Time magazine (March 12, 2012; March 19, 2012)

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