Devices may be making us smarter, but is there a catch?

 
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My three-year-old daughter’s face wavers in shifting patterns of light from the iPad Mini in her hands. As she lies on the couch, her feet resting on my knees, I watch the small twin screens reflected in her eyes. Her bright blue irises, as round as holey dollars, flare with each change of scene. Vivid and mercurial. The obsidian darkness of her tiny pupils growing and shrinking beneath.

Behind this everyday domestic scene something remarkable is occurring. Each sight and sound will be converted by specialised receptor cells into nerve impulses. Travelling at speeds in excess of 100 metres per second, they will reach my daughter’s cerebral cortex via a complex exchange of nerve cell synapses.

Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume1 as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with, approximately one million new neural connections every second2.

Growing up in a small Victorian country town in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was exposed to a relatively simple environment. Until the age of five I stayed at home with my mother. She had her housework; I had my toys and picture books. Our black and white television was rarely watched; photos took a week to develop; letters were delivered to the mailbox. When I started school I couldn’t count beyond 10 or even spell my own first name.

In comparison, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet thanks to the ABC Kids app. She not only takes photographs on her digital camera but turns them into simple slide shows. She sends texts (garbled, to be fair) to her cousin Jemma, shoots videos on her iPad, can write her own name and do basic addition and subtraction.

So, is she smarter than I was at her age?

Yes, according to University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn, a political scientist who became famous in the 1980s for his landmark discovery that, from the 1930s onwards, there have been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world. This improvement has continued up to the present day and has become known as the “Flynn Effect.”

“The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation,” Professor Flynn said to me, via a phone interview from his workplace in Dunedin, New Zealand. “To give you an illustration, in 1900 no-one drove a car. In 1950 everyone drove a car. Between 1900 and 1950 the hippocampus grew in size—it’s the map-reading part of the brain. Today, thanks to automated guidance systems, the size of the hippocampus is going down because we are no longer doing the relevant exercise.”

As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a groundbreaking study that made worldwide headlines, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), found that internet searching was associated with a more than two-fold increase in the activation of brain regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, when compared with the activation shown during a text-reading-only task3.

The brain’s response to video game stimulation has also shown promise. According to a Journal of Molecular Psychiatry paper4, there’s evidence that video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention-demanding and perceptual tasks.

But as to whether these brain expansion effects lead to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving and planning, remains open to debate.

“People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends,” says Flynn. “But it’s not clear if there’s a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills. The rise of IQ has limited effects when accompanied by the rise of ignorance.”

In his research paper5 discussing how visual entertainment may actually distract people from important matters such as understanding international politics or processing social criticism, Flynn argues that cognitive progress as measured by IQ tests does not necessarily equate to wisdom.

“Many video programs are designed to deliver a thrill a minute,” he told me. “Yes, the average three-year-old child’s brain today may be more developed than it was at the same age 30 years ago. But if their attention span for being emotionally stimulated is reduced to one minute, then their mind is programmed to a rhythm that renders complex cognition alien to them.”

Flynn believes that the concentration and focus required to read is losing the battle against the visual immediacy provided by the internet, and he warns this could potentially have serious long-term repercussions.

“We’re in new territory,” he says. “Studies are beginning to appear that seem to show that the less you read, the less value you set on empathising with other people. Computer technology seems to encourage people to retreat into their own private world.”

Research scientist at Harvard University’s Centre on Media and Child Health, Dr David Bickham, has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children’s physical, mental and social development. When I spoke to him on the phone it was 9 pm in Massachusetts; his two children, aged three and five, were asleep in bed.

“It’s important to differentiate between general media use—just exposure to devices like tablets—with programs that are specifically designed for education,” he told me. “The evidence shows pretty convincingly that it’s not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference, but it’s what you do with it, and the content you’re exposed to. With television and touch-screen technology, we’re finding that if you create content that’s designed to maximise the specific developmental stages and abilities of children, then you can really effectively teach content. So it’s a good way to get children exposed to letters and numbers when they’re at a young age.”

I’m uncomfortably aware that my daughter exceeds almost every health organisations’ recommended maximum daily screen time for children. When I admitted this to Bickham, he was reassuring. Even with the American Academy of Paediatrics’ recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time for children under the age of five to just one hour a day6, Bickham, as both a researcher and a parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point.

“In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on,” he said. “The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is what’s most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? And if they are, then I don’t think some screen time is going to hurt.”

Bickham does caution, however, that parents should use electronic media mindfully, and it should never replace important parent-child interactions, which are critical for a child’s development.

“We really are interpersonal beings and our information comes from our interactions with other people,” he said. “The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device.”

Regardless of the debate surrounding the potential benefits or negative effects of screen time on the brain, it’s indisputable that computers, tablets and smartphones are here to stay.

According to the Internet Live Stats site there are currently more than 3.6 billion people with an internet connection, and deviceatlas.com reports that 87 per cent of smartphone users say they “always have their phone at their side, day and night.” Finder.com states that nearly one in four Australians check their phones within ten minutes of waking up (13 per cent do so within one minute); and, startlingly, a joint US–Canadian study7 found that one in 10 people check their phone during sex!

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president Professor Malcolm Hopwood says while there is no doubt that web-enabled devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become over-dependent on them.

“We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people’s work life and their personal life,” he told me. “It’s really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult.”

So did this conflicting advice mean I was going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius? Or a smartphone-addled addict? Or will such an artificial distinction soon cease to exist?

These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.

“It’s bedtime,” I say.

Tears and tantrums follow. As they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

It’s time for Plan B.

As my daughter pouts and wails and jumps up and down, I pick up something I nearly accidently threw away earlier in the day when I did my twice-weekly clear-out of the mailbox.

My daughter’s tears abruptly stop when she sees the envelope in my hand. It’s plastered with animal stickers and her name and address are written on the front in big pink glitter letters.

“What’s that, Mummy?”

“It’s a card,” I say. “It’s for you.”

I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a chicken complete with yellow feathers and big black googly eyes.

“Grandma made it,” I say.

My daughter grins and shakes the hand-crafted card so that the chicken’s pupils rattle in the whites of its eyes.

“Read it!” she says.

I hold the card, feeling the soft downy feathers, the bumps of dried PVC glue, the solid triangular red wooden beak.

“Dear Amity,” I begin.

My daughter giggles. And I smile. Happy, that at least for now, there are still some things that screen time, no matter how smart the device, just can’t beat.
1. The Internet and the Brain, Issue Brief, Centre on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, 2015, http://cmch.tv/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Issue-Brief-The-Internet-and-the-Brain.pdf

2. Brain Architecture, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

3. Small, G.W; Moody, T.D; Siddarth, P and Bookheimer, S.Y, “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching,” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 17, Issue 2 http://www.ajgponline.org/action/showMultipleAbstracts

4. Kuhn, S; Gleich, T; Lorenz, R.C; Lindenberger, U and Gallinat, J, “Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game,” Journal of Molecular Psychiatry (2014), 19, 265-271 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24166407

5. Unpublished at the time of writing

6. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx

7. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3594526/Now-s-TEXT-appeal-One-ten-people-admit-look-phone-sex.html