While sensational stories of sedentary video gamers dying of deep vein thrombosis regularly make news, the more widespread dangers from video games and the cyber world might well be found in the brain’s neural circuitry.
Neuronal pruning is the process by which neural connections become broken, generally from lack of use. It is often a metaphor used to describe the maturation of behavior and intelligence in children in terms of “weeding out” the weaker neurological connections. I bring this up because I suspect that neuronal pruning is at work in our entire population. We have become so dependent on electronic interfaces for our entertainment and even in creating and maintaining relationships that I fear we are “pruning” many of the prime neural networks that we need for effective interpersonal communication. Online and digital technologies are increasingly widespread, influencing our friendships, how we communicate, family life, work, dating, and the way we make purchases.
While research is lacking to examine this hypothesis, evidence is starting to emerge. One brand new survey asked 1,000 people about their Internet usage. 53 percent said they felt distressed when they were prevented, for whatever reason, from accessing the Internet; 40 percent felt lonely. Our dependence on the Internet and the whole cyber world brings a whole host of emotional problems we have to confront. Who would have dreamed that denial of Internet access would produce strong emotional reactions in over half the population? These people were not disappointed. They were DISTRESSED.
Some people who obsessively play video games show traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, such as low extraversion and agreeableness. The more time these folks spend in front of a television or computer screen, the more they exhibit certain antisocial behaviors. While the study that asserted this finding represents an extreme example, emotional disturbances are becoming increasingly associated with excessive cyber time, as well as with denial of access to cyber technologies. Emotional disturbance derives from the neurobiological environment being disturbed. In somewhat simplistic terms, levels of certain neurochemicals get used up during excessive game play, which leads to atypical cerebral functioning, followed in turn by alterations in mood and behavior.
Some researchers feel that unhealthy dependence on cyber technologies—smart phones, Internet, computers, and video games—create emotional disturbances, while others highlight the “iceberg effect,” the fact that such emotional events point to deeper problems going on within the person. I suppose it differs from individual to individual, but one thing is clear: we have some sense of the power of cyber technologies to transform our society, but we do not yet have a clue about how they impact the functioning and structure of the human brain.
Evidence is mounting that excessive use and discontinuation of access to cyber technologies can produce serious and measurable alterations in how we function and relate with one another. The jury is still out, scientifically, but I suspect our population is increasingly undergoing neuronal pruning, the “cutting back” of some important neural networks that experience disuse. I fear that if we are not careful, we will wake up and find in a decade or so that many important relational abilities—now taken for granted—will be lacking in the next generation. I already see evidence of social skills deficits in my clients who excessively play video games or heavily rely on their smart phones. I frequently witness disruptions in school and work, along with narrowing of interests. I counsel balance and vigilance.
Make sure that your loved ones have opportunities to pursue fulfillment away from a screen. You may well be helping to protect their fragile neurological development, and their future