Expert view

Dr Paul Howard-Jones

Dr Paul Howard-Jones lectures at the University of Bristol and is a leading expert on the role of neuroscience in education. He recently reviewed the effects of the internet on the brain, delivering his findings in the 2011 Nominet Lecture at the RSA.

www.neuroeducational.net

What's all this technology doing to their brains? 

Some newspaper articles speculate that technology is damaging our children’s brains – but what does the published research say? Dr Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol investigates.

Yes, it’s true – technologies, such as Google, can change your brain. In a study of older adults, experienced Googlers activated a wider range of brain regions when searching the internet compared to new users. But this is no surprise. The brain is plastic: its function, connectivity and even its structure changes with our personal experiences. That’s how we learn. Experienced Googlers strategise, make decisions and simply search more and these new skills are reflected in their brain activations. Similar changes are seen when we learn other skills, from juggling to complex maths.

The brains of our children are particularly plastic and with young people at the forefront of the technology revolution, it’s prudent for us to ask questions, such as ‘Might prolific use of social networking sites diminish their offline lives?’

 

Ensuring technology benefits our children is about transferring offline parental wisdom to digital environments.”

 

Wellbeing and connectedness

In the 1990s, the existing data linked teenage internet use with social isolation. Here was evidence, perhaps, that the internet was damaging social brain function. But if you think back to those text-only websites, DOS commands and floppy discs, it’s no wonder the teenagers of the 90s who indulged heavily on their computers lost a few friends, especially with so few classmates online.

Now, with vastly increased connectivity and usability, more recent research shows the trend has reversed, with teenage use of social networking sites linked to positive wellbeing and greater social connectedness.

Of course, an online chat on Facebook is not like going to a party and our brains reflect this fact. A recent study showed the number of friends we have on Facebook predicts the size of some, but not all, of the brain regions implicated in face-to-face networking. And yet, the skills we need to use social networking sites safely, may in some important ways, be similar. Just as making friends with unknown strangers in offline environments can be risky, so the benefits of using social networking sites dissipate for teenagers who use them to make new friendships rather than to support existing ones.

This sort of behaviour, whether online or offline, is linked to poorer social wellbeing.

Parental wisdom

The general picture emerging about technology and the brain is chiefly this: in many ways, ensuring technology benefits our children is about transferring offline parental wisdom to digital environments.

Sleep is another example. Just as most of us would discourage our children from having a midnight chat to friends on the doorstep, texting after ‘lights out’ is also a bad idea and increases four-fold the probability of drowsiness in school the next day. Texting under the duvet can disrupt sleep more than illicit TV watching, with research suggesting small bright screens hinder the brain’s secretion of melatonin, so delaying our natural sleepiness.

Sleep is not just about rest but also helps the brain consolidate the day’s learning. When highly arousing activities, such as computer games, disrupt subsequent sleep, children find it harder to recall learning achieved the previous evening. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence, including from neuroscience, to show how technology can support education and learning.

Insights from neuroscience are beginning to help us determine how children can best use technology to minimise risks and maximise benefits. Rather than telling us ‘technology is good’ or ‘technology is bad’, the research is telling us that it’s all about how young people use it.