Digital technology can have many benefits in our lives and make our day-to-day experiences more comfortable, more accessible and also provide vast amounts of positive education. We often hear of ways to time-manage ourselves in a more efficient way and we know that many hours per week can be wasted through too much scrolling. It is, however, becoming more apparent that digital technology, when used too much and in the wrong way, can have significant negative effects on our brains. Let us first begin with the effect this can have on our children and then move onto the broader spectrum of our brain health.

Technology and teenagers

Kaitlyn Kelly founder of PositiviTeens® spoke to hundreds of students and experts on education and psychology during COVID-19 to conclude that:

According to the experts I spoke with, the heightened stress, anxiety and depression among teens stem from multiple losses, social isolation and diminished expectations.

Kaitlyn further explored how digital technology is affecting teenage health and well-being. A decreased sense of purpose in life, direction and motivation, matched with an overconsumption of social media, has resulted in a crisis for teenage health.

Marino, Gini, Vieno, & Spada found a link between problematic facebook use and psychological distress in adolescents. Further studies explored the link between social media use and depression in teenagers. Keles, McCrae & Grealish share:

A systematic review of 11 studies measuring social media use and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents showed a small but statistically significant relationship.

It is important that we start to observe information via digital technology in the same manner that we observe the nutrition on our plates and the education within our schools. We want our children to have a level of autonomy but it is important as adults that we set an example and use social media and other platforms in a balanced way. We want to pick up our tablets and mobile devices with a specific purpose for a specific time period as we would partake in exercise, as opposed to aimlessly scrolling for many hours. When we go to the gym or go jogging, we have a desired outcome and set aside a time frame for this activity. We know of the negative consequences of aimless eating food without dietary planning, and this is how we often consume our digital information as well.

Technology and brain health

Excessive use of social media has been linked with negative changes to our brain morphology. Social networking site addiction has been linked with grey matter degradation. According to Qinghua He, Ofir Turel and Antoine Bechara and their study on brain anatomy alterations associated with SNS;

It specifically shows that human-technology interactions may be linked to the grey matter composition of brain regions which govern behavior.

Further research by Rob Henderson of Psychology Today has shown how dating apps can create an algorithm of reward-learning associated with dopamine. Neuropsychologist Dr. Sherry Skyler discusses how the swiping concept trains us to become reactive individuals instead of proactive and compassionate individuals.

This is not to say that digital technology is a bad thing, but such awareness by experts can help us to understand how aimless swiping, overexposure to social media and scrolling on websites and beyond, can have negative effects on the physiological makeup of our brains. In addition to this, increased anxiety and stress can result from overexposure to digital technology and this in turn can affect our mindset and result in further physical changes throughout our bodies.

Finding a balance

How can we enjoy digital technology and find a healthy balance in our life?

  • Meditation and mindfulness can help us to create space and a place of calm. They can also help us train our minds to process negative emotions in a healthy manner. Meaningful Paths has just created a fun graphic to help beginners in meditation practice – meditation for beginners;

  • Add a phone basket within your family dynamic. When you are having dinner together, conversing over work and school or participating in any family activity, it is sensible to place your phone in a basket as a family, or make it clear that you have put your mobile devices in another room. This shows everyone that you are making an effort to actively listen to one another. It is better to have a one-hour deep conversation and genuinely connect with a loved one instead of having ad-hoc five-minute conversations in between social media and mobile device scrolling;

  • Exercise or go for a family walk after dinner. Exercise helps to reduce stress and release endorphins that are good for the mind and the body. When we participate in an activity with a loved one it can help deepen a relationship through shared mutual goals and can also help to create a state of flow, which makes us feel energised and gives us a greater sense of autonomy, which is paramount for our psychological well-being. If the evenings are dark post-dinner in your location, perhaps you can find a way to go to an evening class that involves a healthy activity;

  • Only follow positive and inspirational profiles on social media. We often scroll aimlessly on social media and feed our minds negative information, causing increased anxiety and stress. In the same manner in which we feed our bodies healthy or unhealthy foods, we can feed our minds healthy and unhealthy information;

  • Create set times for digital activities. Aim to have a set twenty minutes to catch up on the news, aim to have a set five minutes to look at social media and aim to watch a film in a single viewing. In doing so, we do not waste our time aimlessly scrolling on social media, watching adverts and television shows before our desired film choice or get distracted by promotional offers on news channels. This practice can not only save us several hours per day, but it can also prevent us from funnelling our minds with negative information.

Final thoughts

We should embrace new technology if it brings health, educational and communicative benefits to our lives. Like many things in our world, from nutrition to digital exposure, a healthy balance must be struck. If we can enjoy digital technology for a few focused hours per day with the right mindset and productive outcome, then put our devices away in a safe space, we can proactively enjoy other healthful activities and prevent damage to our brains. We can then have deeper conversations, further explore nature for all-round health benefits and train ourselves to be happier and healthier human beings, as opposed to indirectly training our brains to change with negative consequences for ourselves and for others.