Brain Development in a Hyper-Tech World(1)

by Brenda Patoine

August 26, 2008


From tweens to 20-somethings, students are heading back to school this year equipped with the latest electronic gadgets and high-tech accessories. Today’s youth, the most techno-savvy generation yet, have grown up on the computer and Internet and have fully embraced the virtual world, with its emphasis on instant, constant information and communication. They have practically adopted iPod headsets and cell phones as appendages, often to the bafflement of older generations.

In the face of this nonstop barrage of technology-induced stimulation, a question on the minds of many parents, educators and scientists is: how is this affecting young brains? The question is an important one, and from a scientific standpoint, reasonable to ask given what is known about the developing brain.

A central tenet of neuroscience, for example, is that the brain continues to develop its “wiring diagram” at least well into a person’s 20s. The frontal lobes, regions critical to high-level cognitive skills such as judgment, executive control, and emotional regulation, are the last to fully develop. It is also well accepted that during this extended developmental period, the brain is highly adaptable to and influenced by external environmental circumstances. Might the perpetual bath of technology-driven information and sensory overload impact the still-developing brain in some way?

“There are a lot of things we’ve learned about fundamental principles of brain development and interactions with the environment and so forth that one can reasonably hypothesize about what the effects might be,” said Michael Friedlander, head of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “But for the most part, the data aren’t there yet. In terms of actual science investigating people who are using these technologies–the kind of experiments and hard data that most neuroscientists would like to collect–it’s pretty thin.”

Given that reality, he added: “The best we can do at this point is look at a lot of the science that has been done in much more controlled settings and try to extrapolate that to the real world of kids interacting with these technologies.”

A Cautionary Flag

While acknowledging that the dearth of data makes it impossible to know what’s going on for sure, a few prominent neuroscientists are raising a cautionary flag about the possible long-term consequences of technology overload.

Among them is Dana Alliance member Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “In general, technology can be good [for children’s cognitive development] if it is used judiciously,” Grafman said. “But if it is used in a nonjudicious fashion, it will shape the brain in what I think will actually be a negative way.”

The problem is that judicious thinking is among the frontal-lobe skills that are still developing way past the teenage years. In the meantime, the pull of technology is capturing kids at an ever earlier age, when they are not generally able to step back and decide what’s appropriate or necessary, or how much is too much. The outcome, Grafman fears, will be a generation marked by “laziness of thinking.”

“A lot of what is appealing about all these types of instant communications is that they are fast,” he said. “Fast is not equated with deliberation. So I think they can produce a tendency toward shallow thinking. It’s not going to turn off the brain to thinking deeply and thoughtfully about things, but it is going to make that a little bit more difficult to do.”

Multitasking Taxes the Brain

One area where the research is particularly strong is what is popularly known as multitasking. Plugged-in kids have gained a reputation for being masters at toggling between, say, a homework assignment and instant-messaging classmates, downloading music and texting on the cell phone, surfing the Internet while updating Facebook pages, and so on.

A 2006 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation1 found that middle and high school students spend an average of 6.5 hours a day hooked up to computers or otherwise using electronic devices, and more than a quarter of them are routinely using several types of media at once. It also found that when teens are “studying” at the computer, two-thirds of the time they are also doing something else.

“Children’s rooms are now almost pathogenic because they have so many distractions,” said Dana Alliance member Martha Bridge Denckla, a neuroscientist at Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins who studies attention deficit disorders in kids. “I think the most devastating thing that has happened is giving a child a room with a computer in it–you think you’re being a good parent by doing so. Well, a funny thing can happen on the way to the homework.”

While the common perception is that multitasking saves time, enabling one to get things done faster and better, the evidence suggests quite the opposite. It is clear from a large body of solid scientific research conducted over the past two decades that dividing the brain’s attention between two or more tasks simultaneously has costs, both in performance and time.

Several independent research groups have reported evidence that, at the level of neural systems, multitasking actually entails rapid switching from one task to another. Each switch exacts a toll, at least doubling the time it takes to complete a task and decreasing both the level of performance and the ability to recall what you were doing later on. Study after study has found that multitasking degrades the quality of learning.2

Among the leading researchers who have published heavily in this area are Paul Dux, Vanderbilt University; Marcel Just, Carnegie Mellon University; David Meyer, University of Michigan; Hal Pashler, University of California at San Diego; Russell Poldrack, University of California at Los Angeles, and David Strayer, University of Utah.

The bulk of the evidence comes from laboratory-based studies, using carefully designed experiments in controlled settings to tease apart the brain mechanisms underlying task-switching and its costs–and much of it has been conducted with 20-somethings. As such, Grafman said, the research “relates very nicely to multitasking on computers” and is highly relevant to the developing brain.

Strayer’s work has extended the research to real-world situations such as driving while talking on a cell phone. He has found significantly lower reaction times and a two-fold increase in rear-end accidents among both teenage and older drivers who were simultaneously engaged in cell-phone conversations.3 In one study, Strayer and colleagues concluded that “the impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”3

“The bottom line is that if you try to do more than one thing at the same time, you’re going to have a decrement in performance,” said Grafman. “This has been shown over and over again, and it has not changed from the last generation of young people to today’s young people.”

He added: “I think that one of the big trade-offs between multitasking and ‘unitasking,’ as I call it, is that in multitasking, the opportunity for deeper thinking, for deliberation, or for abstract thinking is much more limited. You have to rely more on surface-level information, and that is not a good recipe for creativity or invention.”

‘Mile Wide, Inch Deep’ Knowledge?

Friedlander echoed this sentiment: “If a child is doing homework while on the computer engaged in chat rooms, or listening to iTunes and so forth, I do think there is a risk that there will never be enough depth and time spent on any one component to go as deep or as far as you might have. You might satisfactorily get all these things done, but the quality of the work or of the communication may not reach the level that it could have had it been given one’s full attention. There’s a risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Grafman emphasized that the issues–while relevant to people of all ages–are particularly of concern to children’s whose brains are still developing. “When teens are learning routines–whatever those routines are–the dominant routine is going to play a bigger role in how their brain develops and what kinds of strategies are stored,” he said. If they are constantly toggling between homework and instant messaging and videos, they may get really good at toggling, but as Grafman pointed out, “that does not necessarily equate to being a smarter person.”

Social Development in the Facebook Age

Another area of concern in today’s digital world is the impact of electronic communication on social interactions. The hard science is slim, but experts say there is reason to believe that when the bulk of a young person’s interactions with others is done electronically at the expense of face-to-face communication, social development may be affected.

So-called “social cognition,” which encompasses such things as the ability to form impressions of others, make inferences about their intentions, gauge their emotional reactions and adjust your actions accordingly, is another complex skill that relies on the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s forward-most and last-to-develop region. Like other high-level cognitive functions, mastery of these skills requires practice. “If you don’t have sufficient in-person practice, that has got to be handicapping you in some way,” said Grafman.

Real-world interactions entail what Friedlander calls “broadband communication,” a term borrowed from the digital world. “So much of what we’re conveying to each other comes from the intonation of our voice, the looks, the facial expression, the body language, the pauses–all those subtle cues that go into communication. Kids who are spending all of their time interacting through this cyber world are very likely to not have the opportunity to develop sets of skills that are innate and important to the human brain in terms of what we call social cognition.”

Friedlander also wonders if over-reliance on electronic interactions, which are so often marked by unnatural delays, even minute ones as in cell-phone conversations, might wire developing brains to a different baseline set-point for temporal processing–how time is interpreted.

“We don’t really know how that will affect kids or if it will have long-term effects, but I think it supports the notion that one needs to be careful to not become totally immersed in the cyber world, because it may be a little more awkward interacting with real living people in real situations where those timing delays are somewhat different,” Freidlander said.

How Much is Too Much?

The information explosion brought about by the Internet and other modern technological tools has undeniably had positive influences on society. “These are enabling technologies,” said Friedlander. “I think their greatest power lies in their ability to enable people to reach out to a world that is much greater than what any child is likely to get in their home or school environment. That’s all good and positive.”

The trick, he said, is knowing where to draw the line. “It gets down to a quantitative question: how much is too much? That’s where the rubber really meets the road for most people, and that is a really tough question to answer.”

The responsibility for making such decisions often falls on parents, but they may not be equipped, able, or willing to do so. “We always hear the same thing, that it’s up to parents to control the use of these things and teach kids how to manage it all,” said Grafman. “But in order for them to do this, they have to understand better themselves what they are creating with their children. Many parents today just say, ‘here’s your computer, put it in your room and do your homework on it,’ and that’s the last they see of the kid. If that’s the case, how much are kids going to listen?”

Published August 2008


1 Kaiser Family Foundation, Program for the Study of Media and Health.  “Media Multitasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors and Pairings.”  Released Dec. 12, 2006. (Accessed Aug. 15, 2008)

2 See for example:

·   Foerde K, Knowlton BJ, Poldrack RA.  Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction.  Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2006;103(31):11778-83.

·   Dux PE, Ivanoff J, Asplund CL, Marois R.  Isolation of a central bottleneck of information processing with time-resolved fMRI.  Neuron 2006;52:1109-21.

·   Rohrer D, Pashler HF.  Concurrent task effects on memory retrieval.  Psychol Bull Rev 2003;101(4):96-103.

3 Strayer DL, Drews FA.  Profiles in driver distraction:  effects of cell phone conversations on younger and older drivers.  Hum Factors 2004;46(4):640-9.

4 Strayer DL, Drews FA, Crouch DJ.  A comparison of the cell phone driver and the drunk driver.  Hum Factors 2006;48(2):381-91.