Whenever I speak at a conference, someone always asks me to weigh in on the controversy surrounding whether or not to label excessive cyber behaviors as addiction.  I usually begin to tackle such questions by sharing conversations I have had with video game designers, marketing strategists, and industry executives.  These people understand how the brain works, and they use this knowledge to design games and various applications in such a way that they easily embed themselves into the reward circuitry of the brain.  This means that the dopamine circuits of the frontal brain, those most closely associated with reward and pleasure, become so highly active when playing a certain game or application, that these activities frequently become preferred.  In an increasing number of cases, this preference is so strong that individuals begin to turn away from friends and family, career opportunities, and even activities that were once a source of enjoyment.

News outlets focus on sensational and outlandish stories, like the 16-hour-a-day World of Warcraft devotees, or death from deep vein thrombosis after a 40-hour gaming binge.  The more troubling reality, however, is that the average American child spends close to five hours a day in front of a screen.  Excessive screen time correlates with obesity, attention issues, sleep troubles, poor performance in school, and social issues. America’s board rooms are even starting to become aware that employees’ screen habits can hurt the bottom line.  In a series of interviews with executives for a recent article in the New York Times, the consensus was “that the lure of constant stimulation — the pervasive demand of pings, rings and updates — is creating a profound physical craving that can hurt productivity and personal interactions.”  Realizing the potential for harm, many of the giants of Silicon Valley have begun encouraging mindfulness classes, exercise programs, and simply providing ideas to balance and integrate screen time in healthier ways. It is of course a great irony that many of the developers of these alluring cyber amusements are now realizing the potential downside.  The rest of society lags far behind, however.

While it is heartening that companies like Facebook, Zynga, Microsoft, and eBay have begun to address this problem within their own organizations, I wish they would take some responsibility in the wider world.  The Times article also pointed out that many companies view their activities through the “Fast-food Paradigm,” that while they may provide cyber “junk food,” they are not responsible for the choices people make.

As I have in the past, I call on the companies who profit from technology to spend more resources in public service campaigns to alert citizens to the dangers of excessive use of technology.  Parents need to understand age appropriate levels of screen time, and must be educated on how to properly guide their children, so that lives do not get swallowed up by the screen.  Even mental health professionals lack basic information needed to recognize cyber-related problems.  The solution lies not in eliminating these technologies, but rather in a drastic increase in awareness of how to use them responsibly.

Video games, smart phones, social networking, the Internet, and computers are powerful tools.  People adept with these technologies can use them to advance and succeed.  Controlling predator drones and monitoring battlefield activity are now achieved through video-game-like interfaces.  Facebook and Twitter are essential to sales and marketing.  Smart phones can radically increase worker productivity.  People who play moderate amounts of video games increase visual-spatial acuity and hand-eye coordination.  But we need much more consciousness about how to benefit from these technologies without diminishing our social skills.  We need more research to understand how increasing “screen dependence” is rewiring our brains.  We need to learn to use the offerings of the cyber world to increase our opportunities for fulfillment, not restrict them.

It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new, untrodden ways. -Dr. Hans Asperger

Autism has a lot to teach the world, but most of us don’t have any idea about the nature of the condition, outside of sound bites we hear on the news. The autism spectrum describes a wide array of symptoms. Some individuals “on the spectrum” are quite high functioning, while others have significant cognitive challenges. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas :

• Communication – both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling).
• Social – such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
• Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) – such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.

A recent study, announced a few days ago, featured data about the screen preferences of children with autism spectrum disorders (ADSs). Given the above symptoms, it should come as no surprise that, when given the chance for screen time, children with ASDs choose television and video games over social and interactive media, such as e-mail, online chatting, and Facebook. This preference for socially-isolating screen time could interfere with children”s socialization and learning, researchers warned. The study appears online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

While socialization represents a key area of concern for parents of children with an ASD, today’s tendency toward cyber-mediated isolation should leave all parents worried. Autism is, as Dr. Asperger asserted, a predisposition to turn or stay away from the world. While I agree with him that this tendency does bring some great gifts, it also imparts significant liabilities. We have a population of young people that increasingly “relates” to others through cyber media, and we do not yet know the long-term consequences of this trend.

I continue to be concerned that our young people, not just those with ASDs, are undergoing a neuronal pruning. Like a gardener who fertilizes and stakes certain plants, while weeding out others, the brain is constantly building networks of synapses, while pruning out redundant or unneeded ones. I suspect this process is at work in our collective cerebral garden; the neural networks involved in social interaction are suffering. I worry that significant swaths of society are growing up without the tools they need to successfully navigate the complexities of human relationships. While folks with ASDs have a neurological challenge that makes social interaction difficult, many “neurotypical” people CHOOSE to isolate.

My fears for the future are rooted in a growing body of scientific research. A study done in the United Kingdom, for example, found that young males who spent several hours playing online, role-playing video games exhibited the same personality traits as people with Asperger”s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The more time people spent playing these games, the researchers found, the more likely they were to show three specific traits usually associated with Asperger”s syndrome: neuroticism and a lack of extraversion and agreeableness. People with high levels of neuroticism have a propensity toward persistent negative states, such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. Low levels of extraversion and agreeableness correspond to a mindset that is unsuited to positive and mutually-beneficial interactions with others. The fact that excessive video games can produce these tendencies shows that they impact the brain, at least temporarily. What is unknown is whether or not this impact can become permanent over time.

Texting is another cyber medium that presents a potent craps challenge to young people. Research shows that conversation involves more than just words: 7 percent is the actual content of your message, 38 percent the tone of your voice, and 55 percent body language. Overly reliant on texting, today’s teens miss a good deal of conversational clues. Effective communication requires all three components; a text message automatically eliminates two of them. The result is miscommunication and a total breakdown of conversation, which will impact adult relationships, especially professional and romantic ones. The University of Calgary recently reported that texting also has a negative impact on people”s linguistic ability to interpret and accept words. While texting does involve lots of new abbreviations, it is a communication medium characterized by “rigid linguistic constraints.” Participants in the study who reported higher levels of texting had an associated lack of openness to new words, suggesting that the medium does not lend itself to expanding one’s vocabulary. It disturbs me to think that texting may well be limiting our competence with language and interpersonal communication.

Some would say that digital technologies have transformed our lives, while others would view them as agents of destruction. I see both the positive and negatives, but urge our society to take a more honest and circumspect look at the dark side. I began this discussion with autism because I see a parallel between the social challenges faced by people with ASDs and the self-imposed social isolation that is often the result of cyber media. I wish to underscore that ASDs are conditions rooted in neurobiology, and that video games, cell phones, and the Internet can isolate us so much that some of the same social challenges characteristic in ASDs are appearing with greater frequency in the general population. What worries me most is that we are changing the wiring of our brains, favoring neuronal networks that involve socially-isolating behaviors over those required for face-to-face interaction. Incidentally, I do actually agree with Dr. Asperger. I have known some incredible people with ASDs, one of whom is the architect of this website!