According to a noted neurobiologist, the rapid growth of computer technology is dividing humans into “digital natives” — people who grew up using technology — and “digital immigrants” — people who started using technology later in life.
That’s the provocative suggestion of Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and director of the UCLA Center on Aging, in his new book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Small coauthored the book with his wife, Gigi Vorgan, a former actress and Hollywood scriptwriter.

Stunted Social Development

Among other things, Small argues that as children use technology throughout their development, they run the risk of stunting social development.

“There’s a process in young people of pruning, meaning that a lot of the neural networks are kind of pruned away, are never used,” Small told Canada’s Globe and Mail. “Sixty percent of the brain synapses are pruned away during development. And the teenage brain is not as empathetic. Without the face-to-face time learning to read the subtle, nonverbal social cues, we are going to miss out on some of the empathy building that’s traditionally learned during adolescence.”

The problem, Small suggested, is that when certain tasks are repeated, the neural pathways associated with those activities grow stronger, while less frequently used pathways get neglected and grow weaker.

The goal, he said, is to help children and teens strike a balance between technology use and social activities. He offered a familiar prescription: “I say turn off the computers and the PDAs at a certain time every night and enjoy your family, your friends.”

More Computer Time for the Elderly

Ironically, the results of a study led by Small suggest that older Americans may benefit from more time at the computer. A group of 24 healthy people ranging in age from 55 to 76 were asked to read books and conduct searches on the Internet. While they performed the tasks, Small and his team conducted MRI scans to determine brain activity.

The study concluded that the process of searching for information on the Internet sparked more brain activity than reading, particularly in the areas of the brain that involve decision-making and complex analysis of information.

In an e-mail, Small described the kinds of searches the subjects conducted. “Examples included age-appropriate topics (e.g., benefits of eating chocolate, mountains in the U.S., planning a trip to the Galapagos, how to choose a car, walking for exercise, benefits of drinking coffee),” Small wrote. “We did not study whether there were differences among the specific topics.”

The findings of the potential benefits of Internet activity for the elderly suggest that senior-care facilities and nursing homes might want to increase their technology budgets. However, Small said, “the results are too preliminary to make specific recommendations.”