Frontline recently aired a documentary called Digital Nation which took a look at all the different ways we use media. And at recent research in the field. One of the scientists they interviewed is Dr Gary Small at UCLA. He looked at people’s brains while they read a book, and other people’s brain while they used Google; there was a two fold increase on the extent of activity while interacting with Google. Primarily, in the frontal lobe where most of our cognitive processing goes on.
They also filmed South Korea where many teenagers are addicted to video games. Here they have legendary internet cafes and the gaming craze is out of hand. A few people have even died after gaming marathons for many days without food. A Korean psychologist did research showing how addictive it is and now they treat this as a psychiatric disorder. They are also now requiring media literacy by 2nd grade, to promote healthy internet habits.
On the plus side, the filmmakers highlighted Chatham High School where 4 years ago only 9% of students were meeting state standards. The principal who took over school in 2004 had ambitious ideas, giving out laptops and doing much of the schoolwork online. They have had a lot of success — incidents of violence are way down, test scores in reading are up 30%, and math is up 40%.
Like everything, technology is here to stay and arguments about whether it is good or bad may be counter-productive. Research has given us insights into both positive and negatives and also how pervasive media use is. Like all new technologies, there are fears about what the future holds, but so far, we’ve adapted as we always have. When the written word began, memory suffered – before poets memorized long lines of poems such as The Odessey to pass on orally from generation to generation. Yes, memory loss is a negative but as I am sure most people would agree, the written word has enriched our lives in countless ways.
In the end, just like all technologies or changes, we will adapt and find balance. Technology is part of our lives, and now it’s time to conduct research into how to best manage this enormous resource, without allowing it to overtake everything and change who we are. I am confident we will.