Internet Brain

“When we go online,

we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,

man working on the smartphone in sunny day

hurried and distracted thinking,

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and superficial learning.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Internet culture and the Internet itself are now so ubiquitous that you may not even think of life as being separated into online and offline. If you have a smartphone (and the odds are good that you do), you probably keep it in a pocket or bag–somewhere very close to your body–throughout the day. And overnight, too, lots of us will keep it on a bedside table or right on the mattress or pillow we’re sleeping on.

Even if you’re not actively using your phone, you could receive a text, social media notification, or some other message at any time because it is always connected. It could, of course, lose the signal. But there’s a good chance you’ll see that as a frustration rather than a benefit. I try to be judicious about my phone usage, but I found myself annoyed on a recent camping trip when I couldn’t post to Instagram without any signal at the campsite.

Even if you don’t have a phone or don’t have it on you, you’re likely surrounded by an expanding array of networked things. Everything from fridges to things that we wear to shops and theme parks are becoming more connected in some form or another. Whether cyberspace is taking over the real world, or the real world is diving into cyberspace, we are now thoroughly immersed.

As someone who can remember life pre-Internet (I’m old…ish), it’s crazy to think how quickly and thoroughly things have changed. How natural it feels now to be connected all the time. Most of us could not function without it–whether for the demands and obligations of work or school, or for the more pleasurable things like entertainment, relationships, and staying in the know so you’re not missing out. Constant connectivity, and our reliance on it, has become a way of life.

But because of the dramatic and comprehensive saturation, we should take time to examine the kinds of things it might be doing to us that we’re not immediately aware of. Specifically, how it shapes the way we think, feel, and act. Our brains are the epicenter of concentration, emotion, intelligence, and imagination. We better make sure that anything influencing our brain function–Internet or otherwise–isn’t hampering our ability to be ourselves and be fully human. A person is not just a brain but a fully embodied creature embedded in society. Any changes to our brain will shape how we act with other people and move and breathe in the world.

In some ways, heavy use and reliance on the Internet have boosted our mental and relational powers. Rapid communication and new ways of speaking (emoji, GIFs, memes, and short videos), the way we share stories and experiences, quickly finding information, surrounding ourselves with diverse points of view, and certain improvements in abstract thinking and visual-spatial skills.

But the Internet doesn’t just boost and supplement what we can already do. It also shapes us in its image. Our brains have what’s called neuroplasticity–they adapt and rewire themselves based on what we subject them to. In Internet immersion, our brains start to resemble the things that typify the web.

A preference for the short and sweet–the informal and immediate–because that’s how tweets, texts, and other notifications are packaged. An attention span that defaults to skimming the surface because it’s acclimated to scrolling and swiping with few pauses. Extreme multitasking and information overload that mirrors the bustle of several apps, windows, and tabs all in play at the same time. A reliance on servers for memory rather than our own mind because it’s easier to offshore it. And a reliance on links and searches in a browser to move between ideas rather than an internalized understanding of what’s true and how it’s interrelated with other things.

Kind of a big deal. Maybe you notice these things about yourself, maybe not. But if you’re using your phone or some other kind of device for hours a day, this is the kind of shaping and reshaping that’s happening. For all the perks connectivity brings, we’re at the same time being rewired in some concerning ways.  “The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” We are losing a centered, integrated sense of calm, attention, and deep thinking.

So what do we do? Few of us can disconnect completely. But you should disconnect when you can. You’ll crave connectivity–at a visceral level–so this isn’t easy. Once it’s conditioned, your brain is waiting for the sweet neurochemical hit of a notification and the habitual frenzy of swiping through apps. But carving out some time to not be connected or near a device can help you get back to a better baseline. Maybe try things like no Facebook days or setting a timer for how long you’ll allow yourself to wander through messages and pages. Keep your phone in another room when you go to bed. Maybe that sounds lame or laughable. I get it. You’ll have to figure out what works for you.

Spend some time doing activities that encourage focused attention and long, deep thought. Things like reading, writing, painting, cooking, listening to music (where you focus only on the music). They’ve been a part of the human experience for a long time because of the individual and cultural benefits they bring. They can be a strong counterbalance to the scattering effects of the Internet.

And get outside. Since connectivity is there at every turn, a change of scenery and the restorative benefits of nature can be especially vital. You may find yourself without any signal to connect to at all, and hopefully you’ll see it as a godsend rather than an annoyance like I did.

Internet brain is the standard model we’re all conforming to. The struggles and limitations that result from being constantly connected outweigh the perks. We can reduce the struggles and limitations by taking time to disconnect, diving into things that take the neuroplasticity of our brains in welcome directions, and immerse ourselves in nature. The more connected we become, the more the Internet will continue to shape us. But we can choose to make it one among many things shaping us, rather than the predominant force guiding how we live.

A Connected Childhood

Joshua Tree Desert
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My wife, Amy, and I spent the weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. It was incredible. Unseasonably comfortable weather for the desert. Total silence. No electric lights for miles, so we were able to see the Milky Way amongst countless stars. Little, if any, cell signal. Coincidentally, one of the first things I came across upon our return home in the city was this video from Nature Valley.

Three generations of family recall their favorite activities of their childhood. The elder two generations are all about the outdoors. Fishing, forts, picking fruits, team sports, sledding, wild animals. The youngest generation, those who are kids right now, convey a preference for tablets, texting, binge-watching, and a lot of digital connectivity overall.

Now, of course, the main purpose of the video is to sell granola bars. Nature Valley is trying to get you to buy a product by amplify a sentimental feeling of the wild and restorative qualities of nature, as well as nostalgia for the simpler way of life you experience when you’re small. To be honest, Nature Valley granola bars are not one of the first snacks I’m looking to buy when I’m going outside. They disintegrate and piñata onto the ground once you open the package. You’re more likely to feed a bird or a crawling creature than you are yourself. But let’s set aside the whole commercial, marketing side of the video for a second. When marketing works well, it’s expressing some kind of truth, some kind of feeling that already exists in the air such that when they tell it in a crafted bit of storytelling you want to buy their product because it seems like a necessary solution.

What is the video trying to say about how people spend their time, especially as children? Does that correspond to how things are?

It’s undeniable that children are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media; older children and teens, more than 11 hours. A lot of that time is television, but other devices are catching up fast. For some children, the media use starts as early as just months old, with toddlers who do not yet even speak poking around on their parents’ phones and tablets.

So simply based on a few statistics and general observation of kids’ habits, it makes sense that today you are more likely to find a 13-year-old on the couch multitasking through apps with the TV on in the background than hiking a trail or throwing a ball. That’s not inherently bad. The amount of hours, however, is rather startling—particularly for older children. If you’re spending 11 hours of a day in front of a screen, there’s only 13 other hours available for sports, non-digital activities with friends, eating, sleeping, pooping, and activities of personal interest—including any outdoor ones. The sleeping part alone should take up 7 or 8 hours of those 13, so that really only leaves about 5 for all of the rest. Not a whole lot to work with.

It’s particularly concerning when any child is starting to lose touch with reality. The online world has an “intense pull” and is definitely “highly addictive.” As the one youngster observes happens while he’s gaming, “I forget that I’m in a house, that I have parents, that I have a sister, that I have a dog. I just think I’m in the video game.” The merits of the outdoors aside, when you start to lose track of the reality of even the physical space inside of the house, and your relationships with family who live in it with you, that’s a genuinely disturbing situation. I don’t think the grandmother’s tears are for show.

But before any adult gets too judgmental about the habits of a little dude like him, we’d better stop and take a look in the mirror ourselves. Any current adult’s childhood may have been filled with campfires and tee-ball in the city park, but we’re all just as active online now as any child is. Our social situation, especially the available technology, is prime to enable digital absorption whether you’re an actual kid or just a kid at heart.

Parents and Grandparents—and adults, in general—as the more seasoned and (hopefully) astute among us, “have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world without being swallowed whole by it.” Kids learn by example, and often imitate the patterns and activities of those older than them. Adults should first take a look at their own device use.

How’s that going for you?

When you’re chastising children for binge-watching, are you leveling your critique at yourself too for watching a whole season of a show in just a couple days last week? Are you as quick to check your phone’s notifications as a child is with theirs? Do you interrupt the people you’re actually with in person to prioritize a call or message from someone far away? How often do you make time for fishing or fruit picking or pickup sports now?

Does Nature Valley’s technophobia hold up? Sort of. Today, childhood is irreversibly shaped by devices. They’re not going away. We have to figure out how to raise children to use them with healthy limits. And healthy limits are possible. But it’s not just children who need them. How long was it off-camera before the older two generations in the video reached for their phones to respond to a text from a friend or see what their sibling just tagged them in on Facebook? By the end of the 1950s, there were several million televisions in the United States, so those were entrenched in society well before the current generation of kids. We’re all culpable.

We all need to evaluate the hours we’re spending with screens, and how we might bring that back into balance. Nature is undoubtedly a helpful corrective. For myself, being in a National Park, in the midst of the tranquility and inability to connect through my phone even if I wanted, was deeply refreshing. I still snapped some pictures with my phone’s camera. And I had much tastier trail snacks than a Nature Valley granola bar. As the trip progressed though, I felt less of an urge to grab my phone out of my pocket and simply take in the scenery with the lenses I was born with. I felt my habituation for constant connectivity start to dissipate into the same stillness as the gentle breeze drifting through the California desert. I wanted to simply talk and laugh and tell stories and be present with Amy. No digital addiction could ever compete with the joy, complexity, and allure of being with her—especially while exploring the wilderness together. There are memories and recuperation in the outdoors, whether it’s a neighborhood park or preserved backcountry, that will long outlast a shared photo on social media or a Netflix retreat.

Perhaps the most important thing we should take away from reflecting on the Nature Valley video is to do whatever we can to retain an unspoiled, childlike sense of adventure with the world. At 9 or 90, there are more things out there and places to go than will ever sate the desire for amazement and entertainment. And they’re best shared together: with parents, siblings, friends, or anyone else. Let the digital be a bridge only if necessary. When you can’t get out of the house or the office. When others are across the city or on the other side of the world and you aren’t able to be there. When you need a reprieve from the insanity of your day and your only escape is a streaming video. Otherwise, grab a legit snack (and some water) and get outside somewhere. The online world only seems closer to a child’s fantasyland than the real world does if we forget nature is there for adventuring.