Last week, an article by Ellen Barry for the New York Times pointed to a study from the American University of North Carolina that argued that social media use is linked to brain changes in adolescents. One of the teachers speaking about the study concluded by emphasizing the importance of “understanding how this new digital world is affecting young people. It can be linked to changes in the brain, but that can be for better or for worse. We don’t necessarily know the long-term effects yet.”
The timelines of science are not those of social networks, so it is not easy to show the future impact of digital changes, but it is possible that if they do occur in a developing brain, they will modify it for the future. Just a year ago, in early 2022, another interesting article was about how digital changes are affecting behavior. It had a provocative title and was signed by Johann Hari in The Guardian: your attention was not broken. They stole it from you. The article cited several studies that indicated how young people’s (although not just young people’s) attention had dropped dramatically. And he theorized that just as obesity (very rare half a century ago) is common today, the same thing happens with a lack of attention: it’s less of a medical problem and more of a social one. A structural problem.
The truth is that everything seems to be conspiring against attention in this century. You only have to look at Tik Tok, the now ubiquitous Chinese application whose short vertical video model YouTube has already copied. By the way, one day it would be worth talking about the suspicious differences between the videos that users watch in China — competitions among teenagers for the best grade, young people helping old people with their homework, institutional messages they encourage effort – and the West. – You know, silly dances, silly vocal filters. Tik Tok is the most versatile application, but who says Tik Tok says the vast majority of social networks.
When you’re having this conversation, it’s very common to pull the bottomless digital sack. Also, talk about video games. But it’s not convenient to mix gaming with other forms of technology use (online gambling, social networks, pornography…). These areas share a digital substrate with video games and as such there are areas that they can share as if they were neighbors of the same urbanization. And indeed there are moments when it is difficult to distinguish them. Two examples: During the pandemic (in which the WHO recommended playing video games for mental hygiene) the Animal Crossing game served as a social network for meetings, as did Fortnite as a social network with its digital concerts.
But churras shouldn’t be mixed with merinos: As much as video games carry negative stigmas, there aren’t any serious studies linking them to violence, for example. On the contrary, there are studies that talk about how playing video games can help develop various cognitive abilities. Among them, exactly, attention. If you think about it, it’s not such a crazy thing in the midst of a world where people watch series episodes in the background as they iron, check their mail on the subway, or where the desacralization of cinema is the fact that you watch the movies you watch watch at home, stop when you want to go to the bathroom or make popcorn. Games, on the other hand, need full attention in order to be played. That means you can fall asleep watching TV or listening to music, but not playing a video game. The struggle for attention will be crucial in this century. And science tells us that video games are more friends than foes in this battle.
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