Not a simple answer, though – and to be honest, Jones didn’t really answer it. This wasn’t his fault – he was summarising his review of the evidence of impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (PDF), and most of the work has been done on children (which is also Jones’ area of interest). So he couldn’t tell me whether the internet was frying my brain, Facebook is infantilising me or Google is making me stupid.
Instead, Jones examined the evidence for digital media in general and games more specifically affected users, mostly children. Young people have been the subject of most studies because parents and educators worry about their more plastic brains and that digital media use may affect other areas of development.
Much of the evidence is conflicting. Early studies – before “web 2.0”? – showed that high internet usage increased social isolation and decreased connectedness; now, the opposite is true: the internet is all about connectedness, and the internet stimulates young people to be connected and social. There are downsides to this – young people (and old!) lay themselves open to bullying and abuse, but that’s about society, not technology or the internet – in the US in 2006, only 2% of sex-related crimes against children involved the internet (you can find references to any “facts” in this post in Jones’ paper).
This became a theme of Jones’ talk: technology is neutral, what matters is how you use it: for digital media, it’s when, what and how much.
Apparently, when is important: technological devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – can disrupt our sleep patterns quite significantly. As well as the content they distribute exciting and energising – and hence stopping us wanting to sleep – the light produced by the screens, even at low output, can affect our circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep. This can lead to tiredness, lack of concentration and memory loss the next day – again, symptoms parents and educators may not want to see in young people in classes (though not many employers – or our customers – would be too happy, either).
What can be central to the impact of digital media, too. Shoot ’em up games can teach people to be violent; online learning can help people access resources they otherwise couldn’t. It all depends.
And how much – how much may be the most important factor. The strong attraction of digital media can displace other activities – things like reading books or taking outdoor exercise which educators (and politicians) see as important. But again, the evidence seems contradictory. Apparently, between 1.5% and 8.2% of the population have an issue with excessive internet use – what might be termed “addiction” – except that label may not be relevant.
Jones explored the ways the internet and specifically gaming can have positive benefits – indeed, how they can be used for education. In particular, games can help improve various skills and visuomotor tasks. Even non-gamers can improve their skills through playing video games, and transfer them to other environments (ie the improvement is “sticky”). Interestingly, many of those excessive, “addicted” users are kids playing games. (Others are adults gambling and using pornography, apparently. Who’d’ve thunk it?)
Jones’ message, then, was that the technology is neutral – like older technologies: books can be used for good or wrong, and so can digital media. How we use it matters. Digital media may reduce students’ attention spans, but that may be as much because they provide such attractive pursuits (Jones explained a fair bit about how games work with the brain’s chemistry to be very attractive) than because of any inherent propensity to cause ADHD. It might just be that the online world is more interesting than the real life teachers trying to teach the students…