Peter N. Landless and Zeno L. Charles-Marcel
Multimedia and digital technology have become part of the fabric of modern living worldwide. Information availability and accessibility are at an all-time high. Digital technology (DT) adds value to our lives, but it comes with a price. Your question concerns scientific and consumer communities alike.
There is no easy answer, since DT and media are a mixed bag ranging from satellite radio to video games. Digital media, such as television, video games, and Internet-based learning, are creating a new profile of cognitive and visual-spatial skills. But as a side effect it promotes desensitization, aggressive behavior, and gender inequity because of the prevailing content aimed at consumers.
Video gaming and social networking trigger release of the brain chemical dopamine in the same manner as junk food and the drug ecstasy. Sadly children are disproportionately affected because of their impressionable, developing brains. Simultaneously, educators and psychologists are observing a growing weakness in higher-order cognitive (thinking) processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination—which are developed through reading and even radio. A balanced media diet using each technology’s specific strengths helps develop a balanced profile of cognitive skills.
So what about DT itself? The short answer is that people are using DT in ways that affect their health. Who can deny that DT improves access to information about safe health practices and can foster social interaction with friends? DT helps users improve their diets and fitness efforts and manage various health conditions.
A UCLA study, however, showed a decline in memory and attention correlated with texting and online time, as well as affecting the architecture, quantity, and quality of sleep. Research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that two hours of DT emitted-light exposure reduced levels of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone, by 22 percent.
Other research suggests that sleeping with these devices close to the head may further disrupt sleep quality and dreams. A study conducted by university counseling centers across the United States associates the rise in use of DT with an increase in mental health issues among university students. Additionally, bright-screen exposure decreases leptin, a hormone that makes us feel full, while it increases ghrelin, one that makes us feel hungry. By negatively affecting the metabolism, DT may contribute to obesity.
Digital multitasking—using more than one DT device simultaneously—is an increasing trend. Neuroscientists claim that our brains are not hardwired to process overwhelming, multiple-input streams at once. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Attention spans shorten as we try to match pace with the complex digital information highway.
Some occupations benefit from training in multitasking; for example, pilots need to be able to monitor multiple instruments at the same time. But for complex problem solving, sustained concentration is the preferred skill. Moreover, researchers at UCLA claim that multitasking prevents people from getting a deeper understanding of information, diminishes analytical reasoning, and negatively impacts tasks requiring deep and sustained thought.
This is where the overuse and abuse of DT is of great spiritual concern. God appeals to us through reason (see Deut. 30; Isa. 1:18). If DT abuse impedes our reasoning ability and our ability to concentrate and process the deeper issues of life, does it also impede God’s access to us? Something to think about.
Media and DT are not good or bad in themselves, but they can be used for good or for evil. They can add value to our lives—when we use them mindfully. n
Create a personal and family DT policy.
n Take a DT-use inventory.
n Designate DT-free zones.
n Create intentional DT timeouts.
n Don’t sleep with cellphone close by.
Learn more about these issues.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.
Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.