Digital Media and Our Brain

The Internet and social media are slowly changing the way we use our brain, and if we are not careful, over-time we turn into highly specialised experts in a small area while knowing very little about other subjects.

​​I don’t know if you have noticed that the content of newspaper articles has become smaller and smaller while their headlines and pictures have become ever larger. The contents have also become relatively simple both in language, and the content contains a few tidbits of information. The same stories are displayed on the Internet, which is propagated through social media. And, since many newspapers are subscription-based, many just read the headline and the first paragraph. This is how many get their news. Of course, many articles are free, but they are a marketing tool to get you to subscribe. You can of course, turn to the television. They suffer the same thing as television. One to two minutes segments has become the rule. The question is, why?

Is it because of lack of interest? Are we becoming less intelligent? Or is it because our attention spans are reduced to such a degree that we simply cannot focus on one subject for more than a few minutes? One possible answer can be the Internet. 

The Internet is one of the most important inventions in recent history. It has revolutionised the way we work, live, and play. But for all its positive elements, it also has its negative facets. One of its most negative impact on our lives is that it is making us less focused and intellectually lazy.

Let us look at a few applications on the Internet that contributes to this diminution of our intellectual capabilities. For example, let us look at the social media

Social media is an application that merges facts and fiction to create an alternative reality. This is done through the self-constructed echo chamber. An echo chamber is formed when one excludes all those news and people who one disagree with or are of a different opinion to one’s belief. Once inside the chamber, one’s world view is distorted to such a degree that one tends to believe anything, no matter how absurd they may be. An excellent example of this is the ‘Flat Earth Society’ that believes that earth is flat and deny the Earth’s sphericity (Flat earth society’s Facebook page in Norway) or the popular pro-Trump group called the QAnon, who believe that a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring is plotting against President Donald Trump.

The Internet and social media are slowly changing the way we use our brain, and if we are not careful, over-time we turn into highly specialised experts in a small area while knowing very little about other subjects. Worst still, our kids may become expert in locating information and not containing information (Google experts). But before we discuss this any further, we have to learn a bit about our brain. 

Mind and Brain

My mind is what makes me, me, and my brain holds the infrastructure and mechanisms that contains my mind. The brain is the physical part, visible and tangible, while the mind is part of the invisible, transcendent world of thought, feeling, attitude, belief and imagination. Brain and the mind are inseparable. The mind is the result of numerous interconnections between the various specialised part of a brain.

Memory plays a fundamental part in the creation of the mind. We have three types of memory types: short term memory, working memory, and long-term memory.

Short term memory holds the information about what a person is currently thinking about or is aware of. Information can be stored in short term memory for approximately 20 to 30 second, and then it begins to decay. 

Working memory refers to the processes that are used to temporarily store, organise, and manipulate information., while short-term memory refers only to the temporary storage of information in memory.

Long term memory is where we store information or informative knowledge for an extended amount of time. The long term memory plays a vital role in shaping minds, for it is here that experiences and skills are stored.

The most critical part of acquiring knowledge and skills is to to strengthen the contacts between what is called the synapses. The part of the brain that is called hippocampus retrieves information from the working memory and begins to change the brain's physical neural wiring. These new connections between neurons and synapses stay as long as they remain in use. Anything that disturbs this process, stops the formation of long-term memory.  Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc., disturb this process.

The effects of Google and Social Media on learning

In 2019 Joseph Firth and others carried out a study to explore how unique features of the online world may be influencing the brain. Overall, they concluded that available evidence indicates that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in each of these areas of cognition, which may be reflected in changes in the brain.

Also, neuroimaging of frequent Internet users shows twice as much activity in the short-term memory as sporadic users during online tasks. Basically, our brain is learning to disregard information found online, and this connection becomes stronger every time we experience it. So the more we use Google, the less likely we are to retain what we see.

But, using the search engine regularly creates what is called the “Google Effect” or “digital amnesia” meaning the loss of a large block of interrelated memories. This means that we use Google as our personal memory bank, i.e., users can’t remember any information without looking it up. 

The Social Media on My Mind

The ease of use and affordability has resulted in the rapid diffusion of social media. Social media platforms have, in turn, become rather addictive. This is because most of them create a space for displaying the socially acceptable self or stylised self-presentation, i.e., displaying what one believes others will accept and approve of.

Several studies document the adverse effects of social media. it has been shown that engaging in social media while studying causes poor academic performance.

The rise of electronic gadgets and social media has undoubtedly contributed to the lowering of grades and even a reduction in attention span. This, in turn, has been reflected in the drop-out rates among students. According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one-third of higher education students drop out of their studies before they complete their first degree. 

There are many other adverse effects to using social media and other internet applications that we neither have space or time to discuss here. Suffice to say that the main question is this, what shall we do? Regulate the use of social media? Regulate the Internet? Or educate people.

Educating people seems to be the best solution. People should continually be reminded of the adverse effect of these applications. Concerning using Wikipedia or Google, we should try to dig deeper into what we are interested in.  Also, we should limit the use of social media, especially in classrooms. 

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