Dr. Carl Marci is a Harvard Board Certified Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist. He spends time as an entrepreneur and health technology executive through his role as chief psychiatrist and CEO of OM1, a health data company.
Here, Marci shares five key insights from her new book, Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age. Listen to the audio version, read by Maric himself, on the Next Big Idea app.
1. Our brains are wired solely for social interactions
The human brain consists of between 60 and 80 billion neurons, each of which makes between 10 and 20,000 connections. It is believed to be one of the most complex entities in the known universe. But it is also incredibly vulnerable, particularly in the first years of life. Newborns, toddlers, young children, even teenagers need ongoing attention from caring adults as their brains grow. We form early attachments that influence our future relationships; we make friends who influence what we see, wear and say; we work in groups that form societies and build amazing technologies; we stay connected with the people we love for most of our lives.
Human beings are wired for social interactions. Therefore, our brains are endowed with networks of neurons that force us to form strong bonds and social ties over many decades. A key area of our brain necessary for social connection and a key factor in our success as a species is the prefrontal cortex.
Located behind the forehead and eye sockets, the prefrontal cortex is the most interconnected part of the human brain. A healthy prefrontal cortex is the difference between impulse and perception, distraction and focus, reaction and reflection. Although it does not generate emotions, the prefrontal cortex is essential for interpreting our emotional world. It is also critical to our ability to empathize and form strong social bonds. Your health is under siege in the digital age.
2. Be careful with your smartphone
When thinking about transformative technologies, historians consider the time it takes to go from 40% to 75% market penetration an important benchmark. It took electricity and the telephone for 15 years, then personal computers and the Internet for around 10 years to achieve this goal. Television was the reigning champion for five years until the atom split in 2007, when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the iPhone. It took just three years for smartphones to set the record for the fastest adoption of any major technology in modern history.
There are many consequences to this record adoption rate. One is the massive change in the amount of media we consume as a society. In 2002, the average American adult consumed six to eight hours of media per day (primarily from television, radio, and video cassettes). Today, that number is nearly double. There are similar figures for children of all ages. How did Americans find an extra 30+ hours per week over the past two decades to consume more media? The answer is the proliferation of mobile smartphone apps and the rise of multimedia multitasking.
As a result of spending so much time on our smartphones and a growing number of apps that permeate almost every aspect of our lives, we use media and technology as mood regulators. We no longer tolerate boredom because we don’t have to: stimulation and reward are at hand. Over time, online social networks and other applications began to displace face-to-face interactions offline. This disrupts ties with parents, weakens ties with friends, and decreases the overall capacity of our prefrontal cortex as we become more distracted, divided, and depressed.
3. To manage the impact of smartphones, we must think in terms of development
The human brain goes through an impressive transformation from birth to adulthood and we have a pretty good understanding of how and when these changes occur. Can we use developmental neurobiology to inform our understanding of the impact mobile media consumption has on children and adults alike? The short answer is yes.
As young children go through developmental milestones, their brains grow and change in fundamental ways. From 0 to 3 years old, a very young child’s ability to learn from most videos is extremely limited. This is well illustrated by baby einsteins videos—the now-defunct baby series. Despite their huge popularity with parents, research showed that these videos not only failed to teach meaningful concepts, but the more babies watched, the further behind they fell. the failure of baby einsteins it is the result of “video transfer deficit,” where very young children lack the neural scaffolding to take information from a two-dimensional world of screens into their three-dimensional world of reality.
Fast-forward to the early teen years, and the brain enters a growth phase characterized by yet another developmental vulnerability. As hormones are released, emotional centers and reward centers preempt the prefrontal cortex, which needs at least another decade to fully mature. This developmental delay is summed up in a simple metaphor to explain the complexities of the adolescent brain and its impulsive behaviors: “too much gas and too little brake.”
Enter social media platforms, with instant feedback on highly curated images and the proverbial “time of your life” for everyone except your child. The constant metrics and microaggressions of social media bombard the adolescent brain as it struggles with questions about self-esteem and how to fit into the world. This is a recipe for massive increases in ADHD, anxiety, depression, and teen suicide.
Even adults, with their mature prefrontal cortex, are not immune to the temptations to respond to every call and message. The allure of media multitasking, the perils of constant social media comparisons, and an internet loaded with hype are all designed to keep you coming back for more. This contributes to increased rates of anxiety, depression, narcissism, and loneliness in adults.
4. Not all tech habits are addictions, but all tech addictions start as habits.
There is a continuum between healthy habits and unhealthy addictions, and the health of our brain and prefrontal cortex is key. Habits are routines we develop to save time and preserve cognitive ability for more complex tasks. We do not have to think about routine habits that attend to recurring needs. I would say that almost all of us have changed our habits and behaviors around smartphones and related technologies. When you change your habits, you change your brain, it’s that simple.
There are many wonderful things about mobile media, information and communication technology. But we all walk around with an incredible amount of computing power with full Internet access and a world of temptation and excitement in our pockets. Sometimes habits become addictions. With technology, it’s hard to know when this line has been crossed, as it’s so easy to hide unhealthy smartphone habits and their use is widespread.
While we are all at some risk, there is a subset of people who have developed problematic habits around gaming, shopping, social media, and porn. This stems, in part, from the pervasiveness of smartphones and their apps. It is becoming increasingly understood that there is another subset of people who have true addictions that require serious psychiatric interventions. We need to be more nuanced in our assessments, we need better detection tools and more data to understand the difference between tech habits and tech addictions.
5. There is hope for a future with a balance between technology and life
There are many reasons for concern about the corrosive effects of mobile media, information and communication technology on our lives and brains. But there is also reason to believe that we will create a common expectation that these technologies can and should support us, not divide or bring us down. Human beings are capable of positive change and there are signs that we will survive the threats of our many smartphone habits. Our incredibly adaptable brains will help us weather the technological revolution of the digital age, a revolution that is likely to accelerate.
But there is a difference between surviving and thriving. We need to be more proactive than reactive in creating digital literacy for our children and a balance between technology and life for ourselves. We need healthy brains that function at their best if we are to have any chance of dealing with the many problems facing society. The same brain science that informs our understanding of the negative consequences of excessive media consumption and unhealthy smartphone habits can also provide clear recommendations on how to move forward. That’s why there are ten scientifically backed recommendations in the book’s final section, all designed to protect the prefrontal cortex, help build healthy brains, and guide us toward a better future.
This article originally appeared on Next Big Ideas Club magazine and reprinted with permission.