#019: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (And What We Can Do About It) [Podcast]

In this episode, I talk about what the Internet is doing to our brains. I summarize and then respond to an article in the July 2012 issue of Newsweek called “Tweets, Texts, E-mail and Posts: Is the Onslaught Making Us Crazy?

This Is Your Life Podcast Episode 19

I read the Newsweek article on my vacation while I was offline. I found it very disturbing. Here are some of the highlights:

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Episode Outline

  • A few years ago, people were ridiculed for suggesting that the Internet was having a negative impact on our minds. But now the proof is starting to stack up.

    “The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.”

  • The problem is that we are continuously connected. Thanks to smart phones and other technologies, we have almost become cyborgs—creatures that are half human, half machine.
  • Here are some interesting facts from the article:
    • On average, American stare at some type of computer screen for eight hours a day.
    • When President Obama ran for office last time, the iPhone had yet to be launched.
    • Now smart phones outnumber regular ones. More than a third of users get online BEFORE they even get out of bed.
    • The average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 text messages a month—four times the 2007 number.
    • The average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month, double the 2007 figure.
  • Again, quoting from the article,

    “Altogether the digital shifts of the last five years call to mind a horse that has sprinted out from underneath its rider, dragging the person who once held the reins. No one is arguing for some kind of Amish future. But the research is now making it clear that the Internet is not ‘just’ another delivery system. It is creating a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel, and few people will survive unscathed.”

  • New brain scan technology shows that our brains are being rewired. Heavy web users have fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes. The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. Even worse, Chinese researchers have shown that our grey matter—the part of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information—is shrinking or atrophying.
  • Numerous studies show that the more a person hangs out online the worse they are likely to feel. Web use often displaces sleep, exercise, and face-to-face exchanges, all of which can lead to loneliness, a sense of isolation, and depression.

So, as I said, I found this article very disturbing. I think you can see why. Gail and I had several long conversations about this and how we might respond. There are three possible responses:

  1. Withdrawal. You just “Go Amish,” delete your social media accounts, and swear off the Internet.
  2. Immersion. You shrug your shoulders, give up, and keep marching with the lemmings right over the cliff.
  3. Moderation. You become intentional about your Internet usage, understanding that it’s a double-edged sword.

I don’t think focusing on what you are NOT going to do works very well. On my vacation, I read a very helpful book called, Living into Focus by Arthur Boers, which basically builds on the work of Albert Borgmann, a scholar at the University of Montana who has written extensively on the role of technology in our lives.

Both of these men talk about cultivating specific focal practices. I have written on similar practices under the rubric of disciplines of the heart.

Having reflected on it for a few weeks, I believe you can enjoy the benefits of the Internet while avoiding many of the dangers by practicing five positive disciplines:

  1. The discipline of rest.
  2. The discipline of reflection.
  3. The discipline of reading.
  4. The discipline of relationships.
  5. The discipline of recreation.

I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we do need to be intentional. We need to build these five practices into our daily routine.

Listener Questions

  1. Aaron McHugh asked, “Can you speak to the traps and pitfalls of social media as it relates to seeking personal validation?”
  2. Andrew Mason asked, “Where’s the line? How much Internet engagement is too much?”
  3. KC asked, “How can we help our kids navigate social media as they grow up?”
  4. Paul McGuire asked, “How can we meet our tribe members expectation of near-instant engagement and still maintain a healthy level of social media usage?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a transcript of this episode here.

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