Rage Against the Machine: How Screen Time is Impairing Our Intelligence and What We Can Do About It

by Jillian SteevesPhoto of Jillian Steeves

Jillian is a history major from Danvers, MA. Her essay was inspired by an article she read in her composition class about how screens could damage cognitive functioning, and she thinks that “for a lot of people, myself included, overindulgence in tech is increasingly affecting our quality of life.” Jillian noted the irony of a history major writing about a current topic, but she “found there to be a lot of overlap between my history studies and the topic of my essay,” and she was able to “take many of the skills I’ve picked up as a historian — research, analysis, written communication — and apply them during my writing process.” She considers learning to be a lifelong journey, and “wants to continue exploring, researching, and acquiring knowledge long after I’ve graduated.” She writes that, “the more we understand about the world, the easier it is to use our knowledge to make positive changes.”

“It’s because you’re always on that phone.” Members of my generation will be all too familiar with this adage; it seems to have become a sort of mantra for older adults. Whenever a problem arises – mental health, social issues among peers, or declining performance in school – it seems to always be chalked up as just another side effect of smartphones and computers. For the modern teen, these concerns are usually brushed off as older generations just being old-fashioned.

But it is much to my chagrin that I have to admit: Mom and Pop may not be entirely wrong. Nicholas Carr, for one, certainly seems to think so. His article for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is what introduced me to the idea that the Internet could be rewiring our brains. In the article, Carr describes a process by which modern technology is reshaping our brains at the cost of many cognitive functions, such as reading comprehension and the ability to focus for long periods of time. The Internet exposes us to so many different things at once, he explains, that our brains have had to sacrifice cognitive quality for quantity.

Carr is not alone in this belief either. In recent years, evidence of this phenomenon has begun to emerge in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. A quick search into the relationship between digital technology and cognition turns up no shortage of scientific publications on the topic. One such study, titled “‘Brain Health Consequences of Digital Technology Use,” was published in 2020, in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Gary W. Small and the other authors state that, while computers and smartphones do have some positive effects, such as improved memory and multitasking skills, they come at the cost of many other skills. “Potential harmful effects,” the authors write, “of extensive screen time and technology use include heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep” (Small, et al. 2020). Because you’re always on that phone indeed.

Carr’s outlook, and that of many of his neo-Luddite peers, seems rather bleak. In Carr’s original article, he writes of his fears that, “we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture” (Carr 2008). The consensus seems to be that, if screens really are making us stupid, then humanity must be doomed; as technology continues to progress, so will the downfall of humanity, until we are no longer able to practice in art, literature, culture, and deep thinking – those very things that make us human in the first place. But is this pessimistic frame of mind a reasonable one? Are these changes to the brain causing irreversible damage? Will the end of human intelligence really be brought about by the advent of the smartphone? Probably not.

The idea that excessive screen time can alter our brain wiring is based around the idea of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can be described simply as the brain’s ability to change its structures and functions in response to new situations. Because the Internet provides information and sensory stimuli in a different way to other forms of media, the neural networks of our brains will inevitably change in order to better process this information. This physical restructuring and rewiring of the brain’s biology is what accounts for the cognitive changes associated with Internet usage.

However, what Carr fails to mention is that neuroplasticity is not a one way street. If the brain can rewire itself in response to the Internet, it can also rewire itself in the opposite way. The key to reversing the cognitive effects of technology seems to be reversing the behavior that caused them in the first place. To put it simply: if it’s the Internet that is causing the problem, then logging off the Internet is the solution.

This principle is not mere speculation either. While research on the topic is still in its beginning stages, there are a few studies which have examined case studies related to decreasing technology use. One such study, published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, examined twenty-nine individual case studies where the subjects had completed a “digital detox,” analyzing common trends between them. The authors reported that most, if not all participants experienced increased attention span, better sleep, and improved interpersonal communications during their period of unplugging. (Morris and Cravens-Pickens 2017). Overall, the outcomes yielded mainly positive results.

While the scientific research looks promising, it is also somewhat underdeveloped, due to the relative newness of the subject. With this short supply of research, many individuals have taken the matter into their own hands, experimenting with eliminating digital technology from their own lives. For instance, journalist Johann Hari has recently published an article in The Guardian, documenting a three month vacation from technology. While he struggled to adjust to tech-free life at first, he writes that, “Within a few days, I started to flow, and hours of focus would pass without it feeling like a challenge…I had feared my brain was breaking. I cried with relief when I realised that in the right circumstances, its full power could come back” (Hari 2022).

The student-directed documentary Disconnected turned out similar results. The film follows the day-to-day life of three Carleton College students, who were challenged to give up computers for one month as an experiment for a class. Much like Hari, the students – Andrew, Chel, and Caitlin – found themselves struggling at first; the students had to teach themselves how to use a typewriter, a library card catalog, and even how to send snail mail. However, after the period of initial adjustment, the positive side effect of the technological detox became apparent. In a talking head, Caitlin explains that, “it’s just kind of an inconvenience. But at the same time, I’m finding myself spending more time on things that I should have been doing. Like homework” (Disconnected 24:33–41).

It is worth noting that, despite how different the subjects of each case study are, the results are strikingly similar. Hari, born in the late 1970’s, would not have been introduced to computers until his brain had fully developed, and smartphones until much later still; the Carleton College students, on the other hand, were born and raised in the digital age. And yet, their technological upbringings had seemingly little effect on how easily they were able to adapt to a tech-free life, and to restore their attention spans, productivity, and deep thinking skills. The principle of the technological detox seems to work both for those wanting to return to a previous state of mind and for younger people wanting to achieve an entirely new one. The verdict is clear: eliminating technology from our lives is the key to increasing our intellectual capacity.

So, this means that we should all completely banish modern technology from our lives, right? Well, that’s easier said than done. Even if you do believe in this anti-technology solution, I’m willing to bet that nobody is leaping up to throw their smartphones and computers away. We have school assignments, work-related documents, and bills to pay that simply aren’t accessible without the Internet. While using the Internet may come at the cost of our intelligence, the cost of not using it at all is even greater. To eliminate modern technology from one’s life may come with the cost of a good grade or a job. There’s no easy way around it: our lives exist online. This all-or-nothing solution takes the original dilemma, of intellectual quality being sacrificed for quantity, and turns it on its head. Digital technology definitely can be helpful, and without it, we would be forced to resort to tasks that are time-consuming and inconvenient, if we are even able to do said tasks in the first place. It becomes just as problematic when intellectual quantity is sacrificed in the name of quality.

However, this either-or approach to intellectual quality and quantity presents a false dichotomy. If our goal is not to focus in on one or the other, but rather to achieve a balance between both, it becomes possible to reap the benefits of both worlds, relearning certain brain functions without having to give up the convenience of modern technology. The solution, then, is not to eliminate smartphones and computers, but simply to decrease the amount that we use them.

There are a few ways that we can go about decreasing our screen time. In an article for Time Magazine titled “9 Ways to Finally Stop Spending So Much Time on Your Phone,” author Catherine Price describes some techniques to help keep us off of our devices. The first is to set specific goals when it comes to using technology. “Before you do anything else,” Price writes, “ask yourself: What things do you do on your phone that make you feel good? Which activities make you feel bad? What behaviors or habits would you like to change?” (Price 2018). Turning on the computer or cell phone with a goal already in mind helps to prevent mindless scrolling. Instead, you can log in, focus on the specific task you need to accomplish, and log out. Setting specific goals might also look like limiting screen time. This applies more to technology’s recreational functions. If you don’t want to give up social media altogether, it is useful to set a limit for yourself so that you know when to stop.

The second technique is to create a schedule for your time spent offline. This will help to prevent you from feeling bored and keep you from turning on your device as a means of curing your boredom. Price suggests creating a list of activities to keep yourself occupied without looking at your screen. She explains, “You’re also likely to find yourself with longer periods of time to fill. In order to keep yourself from reverting to your phone to entertain you, it’s essential that you decide on several activities you’d like to use this time for” (Price 2018). This includes typical to-do list activities, such as work and school assignments, or household chores, but it also includes potential hobbies. Having a list handy with alternative, non-digital forms of entertainment will stave off the urge to check your phone out of boredom.

Finally, Price recommends eliminating technological distractions. This means purging your smartphone of any apps that are known to distract you, especially social media. Even if you don’t delete every social media app on your phone, it is still helpful to reduce their number – for instance, one may decide to keep Facebook, but delete Snapchat and TikTok. Reducing distractions also means turning off notifications. Turning off the notifications for particular apps ensures that only the most important messages get through to your phone; a text message, for example, could be important, while a notification from Instagram is an unnecessary distraction. Putting your phone on silent mode during periods of extended focus, such as while working on homework assignments, can also help to improve concentration.

It won’t be easy, and it will certainly require some difficult sacrifices, but with a little hard work, it is possible to rewire our brains. Our attention spans, decision making abilities, communication skills, and all of our other various cognitive capabilities are not, as Nicholas Carr suggests, a lost cause. Our brains’ neuroplasticity means that we can make deliberate lifestyle choices that affect the way we think and behave. There is hope for humanity’s intelligence yet, and the solution lies in what our parents have been telling us all along. Structure and schedule the time you spend online, so that you don’t overdo it. Occupy yourself with hands-on hobbies, like reading (real books) or playing sports. And for goodness sake, get off that phone!

Works Cited
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?The Atlantic, Jul.-Aug. 2008.

Disconnected A Month Without Computers. Directed by Reed Langton-Yanowitz, et al. APT Worldwide, 2010. Film.

Hari, Johann. “Your Attention Didn’t Collapse. It Was Stolen.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Jan. 2022.

Morris, Neli, and Jaclyn D. Cravens-Pickens. “‘I’m Not a Gadget’: A Grounded Theory on Unplugging.” The American Journal of Family Therapy 45.5 (2017): 264–282. Web.

Price, Catherine. “9 Ways to Finally Stop Spending So Much Time on Your Phone.” Time, Time USA, 8 Feb. 2018.

Small, G. W., Lee, J., Kaufman, A., Jalil, J., Siddarth, P., Gaddipati, H., Moody, T. D., & Bookheimer, S. Y. (2020). “Brain Health Consequences of Digital Technology Use
.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 22(2), 179–187.