dr. Carl Marci is a certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Harvard. He spends time as an entrepreneur and health technology executive through his role as chief psychiatrist and general manager at OM1, a health data company.
Below, Marci shares five key insights from his new book, Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age. Listen to the audio version – read by Maric herself – in the Next Big Idea app.
The human brain is made up of between 60-80 billion neurons, each making between 10-20,000 connections. It is considered one of the most complex entities in the known universe. But it’s also incredibly vulnerable, especially early in life. Newborns, toddlers, young children, and even teenagers require constant attention from adult caregivers as their brains grow. We form early attachments that affect our future relationships; we make friends who influence what we look, wear and say; we work in groups that shape societies and build great technologies; we stay connected with people we love for most of our lives.
Humans are wired for social interactions. Thus, our brains are endowed with networks of neurons that force us to form strong attachments and social bonds over many decades. An important area of our brain necessary for social connection and a key factor in our success as a species is the prefrontal cortex.
Sitting behind our forehead and eye sockets, the prefrontal cortex is the most interconnected part of the human brain. A healthy prefrontal cortex is the difference between impulse and insight, distraction and focus, reaction and reflection. Although it does not generate emotions, the prefrontal cortex is critical to interpreting our emotional world. It is also critical to our ability to empathize and form strong social bonds. His health is under attack in the digital age.
2. Watch out for your smartphone
When we think about transformative technologies, the time it takes to go from 40% to 75% market penetration is considered an important metric by historians. It took electricity and the telephone 15 years, then personal computers and the Internet about 10 years to achieve this goal. Television was the reigning champion after five years until the nuclear fission in 2007 when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the iPhone. It took just three years for smartphones to set the record for the fastest adoption of any major technology in modern history.
There are many implications of this record-setting rate of adoption. One is the massive shift in the amount of media we consume as a society. In 2002, the average American adult consumed about six to eight hours of media a day (mainly from TV, radio, and video cassettes). Today, that number is almost double. There are similar numbers for children of any age. Over the past two decades, how have Americans earned an extra 30+ hours a week to consume more media? The answer is the proliferation of mobile smartphone applications and the rise of media multitasking.
Because we spend so much time with our smartphones and a growing number of apps that permeate almost every aspect of our lives, we use media and technology as mood regulators. We no longer tolerate boredom because it doesn’t have to – stimulation and reward are within reach. Over time, online social media and other applications began to displace offline face-to-face interactions. This disrupts attachment to parents, weakens bonds with friends, and reduces the full capacity of our prefrontal cortex as we become more distracted, divided, and depressed.
3. To master the impact of smartphones, we must think developmentally
The human brain goes through an impressive transformation from birth to adulthood and we have a pretty good understanding of how and when these changes take place. Can we use developmental neurobiology to help us understand the impact mobile media consumption has on both children and adults? The short answer is yes.
As young children progress through developmental milestones, their brains grow and change in fundamental ways. From 0-3 years, a very young child’s ability to learn from most videos is extremely limited. This is well illustrated by baby einstein videos – the now-defunct series for babies. Despite their huge popularity with parents, research found that not only were these videos unable to teach meaningful concepts, but the more babies watched them, the further they fell behind. The failure of baby einstein is the result of the “video transmission deficit” where very young children lack the neural scaffold to carry information from a two-dimensional world of screens to their three-dimensional world of reality.
Fast forward to the early teens, and the brain enters a growth phase marked by another developmental vulnerability. As hormones are released, the emotion centers and reward centers race ahead of the prefrontal cortex, which takes at least another decade to fully mature. This developmental delay is summed up by a simple metaphor to explain the complexity of the teenage brain and their impulsive behavior: “too much throttle and not enough brake.”
Enter social media platforms, with instant feedback on very carefully curated images and the proverbial “best time ever” for everyone but your child. The constant statistics and micro-aggressions of social media choke the teenage brain as it grapples with questions about self-esteem and how to fit into the world. This is a recipe for a massive increase in ADHD, anxiety, depression and suicide among teens.
Even adults, with their mature prefrontal cortex, are not immune to the temptation to respond to every app ping and message. The lure of media multitasking, the risks of constant social media comparisons, and an internet full of advertising superstimulants are all designed to keep you coming back for more. This contributes to rising rates in adults with anxiety, depression, narcissism and loneliness.
4. Not all tech habits are addictions, but all tech addictions start as habits
There is a continuum between healthy habits and unhealthy addictions, and the health of our brains and prefrontal cortex are central. Habits are routines we develop to save time and preserve cognitive capacity for more complex tasks. We don’t have to think about routine habits that fulfill recurring needs. I would say that almost all of us have changed our habits and behavior around smartphones and related technologies. When you change your habits, you also change your brain – it’s that simple.
There are many beautiful things about mobile media, information and communication technology. But we are all walking around with an incredible amount of computing power with full internet access and a world of temptation and excitement in our pockets. Sometimes habits degenerate into addiction. It’s hard to tell with technology when this line has been crossed because it’s so easy to hide unhealthy smartphone habits and its use is ubiquitous.
While we are all at some risk, there is a subset of people who have developed problematic habits around gaming, shopping, social media, and pornography. This is partly due to the ubiquity of smartphones and their uses. There is a growing understanding that there is another subset of people with real addictions that require serious psychiatric interventions. We need to be more nuanced in our assessments, we need better tools for screening and more data to understand the difference between tech habits and tech addictions.
5. There is hope for a future with a balance between technology and life
There are many reasons to be concerned about the corrosive effects of mobile media, information and communication technology on our lives and our brains. But there are also reasons to believe that we will create a common expectation that these technologies can and should support us, not divide and depress us. Humans are capable of positive change and there are signs that we will survive the threats of our many smartphone habits. Our incredibly adaptive brain will take us through the technological revolution of the digital age – a revolution that is likely to accelerate.
But there is a difference between surviving and thriving. We need to be more proactive than reactive to create digital literacy for our kids and a tech-life balance for ourselves. We need healthy brains functioning at their peak if we are to stand a chance of coping with the many problems facing society. The same brain science that gives us insight into the negative consequences of too much media consumption and unhealthy smartphone habits can also provide clear recommendations on how to move forward. That’s why there are ten science-backed recommendations in the last part of the book — all designed to protect the prefrontal cortex, help build healthy brains, and guide us toward a brighter future.
This one article originally appeared in Next big ideas club magazine and is reprinted with permission.