The Impact of the Digital World on Our Youngsters
The online world is enchanting and can keep a child engaged for hours. As parents, we have seen our children emerge bleary eyed and in a stupor after being asked to disengage from a long screen session. Sometimes, kids even can become aggressive and irritable when asked to engage with real world activities straight after.
Should we be worried about the impact of digital gaming and social media on our children’s development? Professor Philip Zimbardo from Stanford University thinks we most definitely should be. He has collated his own and others research and authored a book ‘Man Disconnected.’ He is certain that the impact on young people (especially boys) is harmful and urges schools and parents to act.
Before the digital age, we had television as the main challenger to reading but unlike T.V. digital games and social media are very different in their effect on our brains. In books, there is no reward system for having completed and understood a particularly difficult passage or a complex plot. Online games in particular give you a status and reward with page progression. Zimbardo says that the stimulating visual environment overloads our working memory (the part of our memory responsible for storing, processing and reasoning everyday activities). Meanwhile our long-term memory doesn’t get exercised and starts to get lazy. Our brain then gets confused between which content is relevant to process and which isn’t, as the mind gets bogged down by constant pop ups and hyperlinks. All this leads to a drop in the ability to think deeply, by drawing on long term memory and experience and to sit and work through everyday challenges like completing an essay or reading a passage in a book. Fragmented attention through gaming leads to reduced capacity for concentration.
Zimbardo believes boys are at risk because a lot of the games are targeted to feed their innate feelings of aggression and sexual desire which are still fledging and developing but which find an outlet in the digital world. Instead of these feelings being processed within family and other social interactions they are explored without a context and in isolation leaving boys with a distorted sense of their sexuality and no one to neutralise and process their aggression.
It follows that if we find the real-world tasks take more effort and concentration than we can muster we seek further solace in the online world which rewards a person immediately once a specific level of skill is reached. This pattern of reinforcing desirable behaviour at regular intervals is called ‘operant conditioning’ and was discovered as an effective tool to get people to change their behaviour by BF Skinner in the 1940s. Nowadays it is a great tool used by sophisticated game designers. It’s a losing battle because even if you start off with lots of intrinsic motivation you end up dependent on these rewards and your intrinsic motivation is reduced.
Neuroscience can back this claim up as we know that regularly engaging in a repeated habit creates changed brain physiology as well as behaviour. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones as new cells are created. This moment to moment neural reprogramming is called ‘neuroplasticity.’ It seems that playing video games floods the part of the brain responsible for motivation and drive but simultaneously shuts off blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for providing a context for that drive.
The net result is that you get a feeling of reward associated with achieving a great objective without a connection to the real world and without a sense of need to contextualise the story.
There is a psychological impact to this issue too. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which is depicted as a pyramid which puts the most basic needs for food, and physical safety at the bottom and more psychological needs of belongness, love & esteem and self-actualisation at the top. So, assuming human happiness is achieved according Maslow’s hierarchy; can the online world ever satisfy these deep rooted psychological needs? On the one hand, the digital world can satisfy your self-esteem needs as you win games but it’s without a context. What does it mean to feel a high level of esteem and the attendant entitlement without ability to relate to others and experience love and belonging? It sounds like fertile ground to developing schizoid or narcissist tendencies which are definitely not good for our young people’s happiness and contentment levels and society as a whole.
To save our children we need to control the amount of screen time they have. If uncontrolled it can have a malevolent impact on a young person’s psychological health. Decreased motivation, fragmented concentration and reduced ability to forge relationships with others in the real world can lead to under achievement in school, at work and in their relationships.
However, this isn’t the last word! There is hope. In my next blog, I will explore the latest good practice in controlling screen time to create more balance, harmony and greater psychological health.