It’s no news that the use of smartphones and tablets has been found to be detrimental for the usual brain development of children. I’ve placed emphasis on the word “usual” because even though children that are allowed to use smartphones and tablets end up having a different brain structure (both physical and operational), this may not be detrimental for them in a possible future where a whirlwind of interaction with robots and multiple various forms of AI at the same time might become a part of the daily routine. But that’s a risky bet to make. It is now quite well recognized (also by neuroscientists) that these devices are harmful for children^.
Recent studies, however, have shown that the exaggerated use of smartphones is causing damage in adults too. One of the most serious effects of smartphone abuse is social retardation, which has grave repercussions across a wide spectrum of behaviors:
But wait, there’s more. The “hardware” side of the problem is further compounded by the software that we use. According to Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, our minds are being hijacked by social media (and other similar online products). Here’s an excellent interview with Tristan where he explains how and why this happens:
There is also a TED talk by Tristan where he describes the tactics and purposes of the corporations that profit from hijacking our time and attention:
The smartphone is not only made to capture our attention, but also to encourage changes in how our brain works (neuroplasticity^ plays a huge role in this). As a result of these changes, our attention is easier to capture and once baited, it can be manipulated so that it doesn’t escape the trap. It wouldn’t be so bad if our attention and time would be invested in something useful, but many times this is not the case.
Social media excels at propagating cheap thrills and “harmless” pleasures. Tempting us to divide our attention and scatter it across the endless assault of notifications, these websites and applications offer little more than a specter of happiness –it’s all that’s necessary in order to keep users satisfied and hooked on a certain platform. Unfortunately, social media has started to play an increasingly important role in who people vote for. Spreading knowledge this way has started to seriously harm our culture and society not only by allowing the rampant spread of false information but even more importantly by isolating social groups and preventing the spread of correct information.
This is where things start to become very dangerous, because dis-informed voters are what dangerous individuals use to grab the leadership. Power-hungry manipulators might be able to advance their interests and the interests of those they collude with, but this usually comes at a steep cost for humanity as a whole.
It’s impressive how far these manipulation techniques have gotten. What’s a bit scary for me is that even with the army of psychologists and researchers at their disposal, the corporations are still barely scratching the surface when it comes to the intricacies of how the brain works. As the knowledge about our psyche advances, so increase the ways it can be exploited. Perhaps as an informed adult you can now take measures against this sort of manipulation. That’s the optimistic outcome when it comes to adults. However, take a deep breath now and think of the children^.
Update: And then, of course, there’s the Trojan horse aspect these devices pose. Privacy? What privacy?