Smartphones are changing our brains

Do smartphones change our brain?

Henriette hesitates when asked to climb into the tiny cabin. A little later, the two-year-old is sitting on her mother's lap. The eyes shine. There is a screen in front of her and a film is on. Suddenly she listens. Something is buzzing, like a cell phone. What Henriette does not know: A special camera for eye tracking records her eye movements and the size of the pupils.

Henriette is sitting in the center of an experiment in the children's laboratory in Magdeburg. It's about attention, distraction, and building the brain. It's about current research - also on the influence of digital continuous playback.

How do children's learning and memory develop?

Outside the cabin, Professor Nicole Wetzel's eyes wander between several monitors. The data from test subjects are transferred to it inside. White blouse, dark jacket, jeans - that's how the 45-year-old sits in the laboratory at the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology. She wants to find out how attention, learning and the memory of children and adolescents develop.

A hot topic in times when many kids can hardly keep their fingers off their cell phones. In times when health insurances are warning against internet addiction and social media addiction. It is true that the Magdeburg team originally researched brain activity in learning and remembering in general and not the effects of the media. But Wetzel's attempts to pay attention are a building block in the mosaic of studies around the world that are exploring the work of cells in the brain.

Little knowledge of the effects of digital media

What traces does the permanent presence of smartphones leave in our heads? Are there deformed Twitter or Facebook brains, as some pessimists warn?

“Basically, we still know relatively little about how digital media change the brain and its activity,” says Nicole Wetzel. The expert smiles infectiously friendly. “There is no question that they will change it. Because everything we experience, what we learn, whether we read a book or build a sand castle, changes our brain. The question is not if, but how exactly. "

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The ringing of cell phones distracts the brain

Her team checks their eyes during tests - as with Henriette. The pupils not only react to light, but also to cognitive processes. “When we hear something surprising, our pupils dilate,” explains the researcher. The test subjects are actually supposed to perform a task. If a cell phone rings in between, the researchers can use their eye trackers to see that someone is being distracted from their actual goal.

Another measurement method starts with the electrical currents in the brain. For this, the test persons are given hoods with electrodes for an EEG. The measuring caps record which areas in the head get going when a stimulus occurs. Certain patterns allow researchers to draw conclusions about how distracted someone is.

"When a background noise is played in, the children usually react more slowly or make more mistakes," says Wetzel. "And the younger the children are, the more their performance is impaired."

External influences change the brain

Now our thinking apparatus is not a hard drive on which one only stores and retrieves, but a sensitive, highly changeable organ. The brain reacts quickly to external influences, it changes its networks. Experts speak of plasticity.

"In simplified terms, you can think of it as a network of paths: At the beginning, with a small child, there are many paths," explains Wetzel. “And the roads that the children often use are being expanded into large, wide roads where traffic flows quickly.” Less-used roads become stunted - their expansion becomes more difficult later in life. "If I pull out my cell phone many times a day, it will eventually become such a wide street - to stay in the picture."

Smartphone boom not yet fully explored

If people at a young age are quickly distracted by cell phone messages and beeps, if they find it difficult to control interference, does this hinder deep understanding? “There is still a lot to be explored,” says Wetzel. Researchers would report very different results: Attention can be trained with certain computer games. On the one hand. "On the other hand, there are reports of connections between excessive media consumption and impaired attention."

Digitization is still in full swing. The smartphone boom, for example, has only been going on for a little over ten years - too short for large long-term studies. Nevertheless, people are increasingly using navigation apps instead of street maps, tablets instead of books, parking aids in their cars and speaking assistants at home. Connections are often indicated, but whether an event is really the cause of a change in the head often remains unclear at first.

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The cell phone disturbs sleep and attention

In the UK, the RSPH health organization published a report on social networks and the health of young people. An important point: The cell phone by the bed, checking so as not to miss anything at night, can massively disrupt sleep. One in five young people check their networks at night. For the development of the young brain, however, a lot of sleep is essential, as the study organizers emphasize.

In the USA, the psychologist Adrian F. Ward made exciting discoveries in two experiments that he presented with colleagues in 2017: the proximity of one's own smartphone is enough to make people perform worse on test questions. If the device is in a different room, subjects think more and answer more correctly. Ward concludes that a nearby cell phone is so cluttered up that resources in the brain are occupied. The working memory in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, in the prefrontal cortex, for example. It can then do less in other fields. We need it, among other things, to understand sentences. It is also active in logical thinking.

"Digital media are neither good nor bad per se"

The experts from the Leibniz Institute for Knowledge Media also report that digital technologies leave their mark on this important part of the brain