When Vancouver neurotherapist Mari Swingle decided to write a book about the effect of digital technologies on the human brain, she did something unexpected. Rather than completely immersing herself in the wired world, the Swingle Clinic learning and behavioural specialist chose to escape for a couple of weeks to an isolated field full of cattle.
Smack in the middle of the pasture, she set up a writing table, relying on an antenna for her only connection to the Internet. And she did nothing but work on her new book, i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behaviour, and the Evolution of Our Species (New Society Publishers).
Swingle told the Georgia Straight by phone that she wanted to write a balanced book about the effect of digital technologies while still highlighting links between excessive usage and behavioural and conduct disorders, as well as certain learning disabilities.
“My point is, I practise what I preach in terms of balance,” she said. “If you ever came down to the clinic, boy-oh-boy, are we ever technologically based. Everything we do is based on technology. But I have an off switch in that after a certain hour of night, I turn my own computer off. I don’t respond to messages unless they’re critical.”
Swingle, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, noted that modern technology has enabled clinicians to track the effect that digital technology is having on people’s brains. With the help of electroencephalography, also known as EEG, it is possible to learn more about brain functioning, including predisposition to depression, addiction, or difficulties with attention.
In her book, she explains how this can occur: “For example, readings can differentiate between focus difficulties due to under-stimulation, over-stimulation, and excessive challenge: three ‘brain causes’ of ADHD that have very different underlying functional or biological mechanisms (brain states) as well as different regional sources (locations of brain deregulation) that are all associated with a set of fairly identical symptoms in a specific learning disability.”
In addition, she writes that EEG readings can also indicate “patterns associated with drive, intelligence, creativity, cognitive flexibility, emotional balance, and potential for superior numerical processing abilities”.
Swingle said that on a weekly basis, she can evaluate EEG readings with children and adults she sees in the clinic. She emphasized that in clinical populations, problems associated with excessive use of digital technology often have deeper roots.
“If it’s a depression or anxiety, typically that’s not quite strong enough to seek medical or psychological attention,” Swingle stated. “What happens is instead of turning to friends or family or normal support networks because they’re not feeling well, they go into the Net.”
That’s where this “subclinical pathology” can blossom into something more serious. According to Swingle, it’s not on the radar of many educators and counsellors.
“By the time kids get to me, they have a problem,” she said. “So engaging teachers, I think, is very important.”
She pointed out that research has indicated that watching too much television leads to inertia, whereas digital media has the opposite effect. Rather than turning its users into zombies, it is highly stimulative. She likened the desire for more exposure to technology to an “addictive process”.
In children, Swingle added, it trains their brain to want a higher level of arousal. “They can’t sustain the mundane anymore,” she said. “That’s where the alliance with attention difficulties comes in. Regular life just cannot sustain the children’s attention.”
So how can someone know if digital activities are having a negative impact? Swingle said there’s nothing to worry about if usage fits in and is integral to modern life without overriding other behaviours or relationships. However, she added, when technology interferes or overrides a desirable trait or eclipses a developmental phase, that’s when it becomes problematic.
Her advice to parents is keep kids away from digital media until they’re six years old. After that, she thinks a healthy limit is one hour a day. Otherwise, she said, the wired world can become a “communications mediator” in adolescence.
“It’s a time when we’re learning the adult roles of acceptance and rejection,” Swingle explained. “I feel that i-technology and i-media are having what I refer to as a negative bridging. A lot of the children aren’t facing that awkwardness. If you look at a lot of youth now, they have trouble communicating face to face without the mediator.”
Swingle also said that too much exposure can lead to emotional deregulation, with people even developing different personas online. That’s because they can become far less inhibited when they’re typing into a keyboard with anonymity. And that, in turn, can lead to cyberbullying or sexually irresponsible behaviour.
“They get high on it,” she said. “They get fuelled on it. But what we’re also seeing is kids doing this with name and face attached. If they get a following, then they lose all inhibitions.”