How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains

how cell phones are changing our brains

I once got into testy e-mail exchange with a media ecologist over my use of the word addiction in regard to media behavior. He adamantly preferred the word habit for behavior, whether acceptable or problematic, leaving addiction to recovery problems of physiological substance abuse, alcohol, heroin, etc. I had deliberately left out the defining limit for addiction of negative consequences, calling even reading a form of media addiction (do we readers sit down at breakfast and numbly read cereal boxes merely out of habit?). I intended this muddied use of addiction as a playful rhetorical exaggeration to shock the reader into a new awareness about how any medium changes the ground of user behavior. He was moving in the opposite direction, narrowing the definition to eliminate all ambiguity between psychological distress and physiological withdrawal, so as not to make the match of correct treatment to its condition more ambiguous.

The exchange was strange because his view of human behavior seemed so compartmentalized, psychology strictly isolated from physiology. He seemed to ignore the integral nature of suffering in any context as both physical and psychological, and not to recognize the impact of some behaviors, addictive or habitual, on personal and social identity. These are not discrete concepts either. In the arena of what he would call addiction, we intervene more frequently for the social damage the addiction causes than its physiological risks because, in addition to true life-threatening withdrawal from such as alcohol, heroin, or even smoking, there are also real social consequences for physiologic addiction. The same social consequences can be seen in exclusively “habitual” behavioral arenas like gambling, pornography, and yes, i-tech: broken or stunted relationships, lost jobs, lowered self-esteem, etc.

My tongue-in-cheek argument above aside, a valuable new book, i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species by Mari K. Swingle, PhD vindicates my broad use of addiction in regard to media behavior, and describes the acts and conditions by which we can identify real media addiction. She sounds an effective alarm for parents, educators, and every day i-media users. But i-Minds is not only about clinical addiction, and certainly not all use of i-tech is pathological. Addiction is the presenting symptom, the visible tip of the iceberg, the canary in the coal mine, the smoke in the air — and where there’s smoke. . .   Swingle uses her idea of addiction as a gateway to a much larger discussion about how the effects and habits of digital interactive tech are changing the commons of our brains, our families, and our communities. In short, the book offers a concrete example of media ecology at work.

Dr. Swingle is both a research scientist in neurophysiology and a clinical therapist in addiction. Her approach is simultaneously scientific and empirical. She offers many ‘evidence-based’ arguments from the scientific literature (the bibliography is extensive) and her clinical practice for the unapologetic use of the word addiction in regard to any media behavior with negative social consequences, in the present context, digital interactive tech. Finally, her view is supported by the DSM-IV, which she summarizes bluntly as ‘the simplest definition of addiction is: a malfunction of reward circuitry in the brain‘ (p. 184).

She acknowledges that many of these changes in individual behavior must be a necessary part of an ongoing social evolution. This adjustment is surely akin to what the Greeks experienced with the introduction of literacy. We can imagine Socrates complaining about growing literacy in the then younger generation (‘that young turk Plato. . .wants to write everything down’). Or to what the literate Western world has experienced with the exponential development of electric media over the last hundred years. But such ideas of cultural transformation under the influence of new media have penetrated the public consciousness even less than the general theory of relativity, quantum physics, and ‘climate change’.

Dr. Swingle’s i-Minds focuses on the present without any broad historical overview or underlying media theory other than the changes in the brain shown in research she discusses. Her premise begins with her clinical experience with clients, and the underlying science behind her diagnosis and treatment. She describes the neuroscience supporting her thinking well, with in-depth explanations removed from the text in boxes for the reader wanting more scientific depth. After explaining i-addiction and describing several clinical examples, she takes her discussion into the other social spheres affected by digital media, such as infant and child development, parent and child attachment, education, and sexuality.  i-Minds is a much-needed update on Jane Healy’s Endangered Minds (1991), which came out early in the PC era, and was a harbinger of emerging interest in neuroplasticity as it related to declining literacy.

Swingle does not appear to be explicitly in debt to or aware of fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s idea of mass media as a formal cause of cultural change, although her concern and observations about present social implications certainly approach his aggregate view of media influence. And while her attention focuses on individuals and their social groups, there is no comparison of waning private identity to burgeoning corporate identity. There is no reference to McLuhan’s (perhaps confusing) idea of the user of electronic media being ‘discarnate’, with less and less awareness of, and meaningful use for, the body. There is no reference to the laws of media, enhancement, reversal, obsolescence, and retrieval, though the content is there for the attentive. There is no high altitude discussion of electric media retrieving the mimetic conditions of pre-literacy, and how that experience must have a direct impact on brain plasticity. Without these abstruse concerns, her approach is pragmatic and concrete. Her concern about plasticity is focused in the present on what the neurological changes mean for her clients and society in the near future.  i-Minds provides a good entry for the present generation to a discussion about the individual and social effects of digital media.

Swingle’s style is mostly chatty and accessible to non-scientists and non-clinicians. She avoids the characteristic detached, objective, and deadly tone of scientific literature even as she explains the science.  Her explanations of neurologic science are clear, understandable, and relevant to her argument, offering much more than matching function to anatomy. Her use of the science is just, occasionally pointing out the limits of a particular study. She avoids panic, striving for a neutral tone, sparing indignation to allow the concrete examples of her argument to persuade the reader. The media moralist focused on the content of the moment rather than the description of the greater effect may wish for stronger condemnations, particularly in the chapter on adult sexuality. She knows that the moral approach is ineffective in a theatre like this. She is sometimes gently sarcastic when the argument seems so obvious it must engage her real opinion, which allows her a moral tone with a sly wink rather than a stern scold.  For therapists cannot remain entirely neutral and non-judgmental about human behavior if they are going to help their clients function as healthy members of their social circles.

Her approach is timely. McLuhan described print culture as visual, detached, and individualistic, in contrast to electric media which he saw as oral, involved, and corporate. We have had no end of laments from the literati about the withering of the literate sensibility, loss of grammatical discipline, absence of sustained thought, and loss of private reflection under the influence of electric media. These observations are true for those who wrote them, and each finds their audience among older readers struggling between a fading print sensibility and the new digital media. But these lamentations mean nothing to those in a post-literate era who have not experienced literacy at that depth.

Instead, the generations maturing since the advent of the PC have grown up in a culture dominated by participatory electric media. We cannot forget that ‘corporate’ must also mean social, enhanced in some ways which make the elders uncomfortable, seemingly extending some aspects of our social lives while numbing us to others. McLuhan often pointed out that every ‘extension’ or enhancement was also in effect an ‘amputation’. Think of the automobile extending the distance we might travel, and in effect amputating the foot with simple lack of use and its attendant atrophy – and the not unrelated rise in obesity (contrary to the current media message, the formal cause of obesity is as much about media – automobiles, processed food, marketing, AND digital technology – as overeating). Now consider how i-tech enhances the bodiless image and experience of the user at the expense of attachment, unstructured play, emotional intelligence, and all forms of face-to-face, in-the-flesh communication. Swingle’s approach may provide a way for the current generation, already or soon to be parents, to start thinking about why and how they might use and limit these new media.

In Chapter Six, ‘The Story of Alpha’, she describes the brain science of alpha and beta waves as these relate to addiction, learning, creativity, and socialization. She shows how the cycle of arousal and reward commonly applied to addiction relates to the use of all digital media; how the use of i-media deregulates and hijacks alpha wave activity into the narrow domain of the software, and offers seductive and repetitive rewards.  She describes how the gaming industry uses current neurological research deliberately to create addictive game designs. She compares the gains in learning from unstructured, unmediated play to the highly structured learning of games and programmed learning; the games and programmed learning come up short in all contexts not structured to the game or program. She also shows how game makers abuse the emerging neuroscience to market specious claims of improved skills and learning to a gullible and uncritical audience of gamers, parents, and educators.

In short, digital media can undermine reward and social development in other areas such as early and late childhood education, emotional intelligence, and sexuality if it comes to dominate the user’s life.

Addictions, even ‘simple’ addictions like cigarettes or alcohol with apparent efficient causes, also have formal causes which create percepts and patterns. Is the accustomed pattern in the preverbal brain habit or addiction? I think we can see a pattern of arousal and reward in the brain’s plastic adjustment. The ground of recurring percepts patterns the preverbal brain.  But the linguistic mind’s characteristic detachment in concept and definition, figures without grounds, cannot escape its own linguistic veneer to reach the preverbal mind to recognize and name these percepts. Only the involvement and subjectivity of percept in the moment (the moment being an endlessly recurring checking and rechecking between the social surface and the preverbal foundation for harmony or discord) forces this ‘unconscious’, unnamed reorganization of the plastic brain toward ‘making sense’, and finds reward in accommodating adjustment.  This split in consciousness between the named and unnamed we think of as conscious and unconscious. The brain bridges this seeming gap or interval with rapid on-going comparisons of deep patterns in preverbal percepts to the surface evidence of sense and language. This oscillation between percept and concept is the whole brain at work, the very substance of consciousness. This constant back-and-forth between the deep pattern in percept and the interactive surface of sense and language discovers either consonance or dissonance between the two.  Simply, dissonance between these two kinds of consciousness arouses the brain, and successful adjustment, re-wiring for connection and influence, is the reward. We ‘make sense’ of the world in this interval, in this moment, which is every moment.

So where does Swingle’s idea of ‘malfunction in the reward cycle’ enter the fray?  I think her definition misleads the reader slightly because the ‘malfunction’ is not predominantly in the brain at all. The brain does what it always does ever since it sought to bond with its mother as an infant: wires itself for connection. She is correct that some kinds of brains, clients with ADHD, autism, and Asperger’s syndrome for instance, seem to have a behavioral predisposition for i-media addiction, and this is valuable information for the therapist. Still, every brain wires itself for connection as best it can. The scientific frame focused on the brain is too narrow. The ‘malfunction in the reward cycle’ is in the culture, not the brain, in the new environmental presence and uncritical use of i-media.

The diagnosis and awareness of ADHD, autism and Asperger’s syndrome have increased because the presence of i-media in their environment makes it that much harder for those with that predisposition to wire their brains in another manner.  The old literate environment used to nudge those on the milder side of the autistic spectrum in another direction, and they passed into society mostly without notice; only the severely autistic stood out. Now, even those on the mild side of the autistic spectrum are sucked in by a very different media environment that plays to their innate state: narrow, high arousal and frequent repetitive rewards.  The same i-media environment which plays to the vulnerability in those brains is also shaping the brains of the rest of us. All you need to do is read Swingle’s description of substitute i-parenting, toddlers walking around with interactive digital devices before they can talk (so Mom or Dad can text or catch up on Facebook) to recognize that many of us are not only failing to parent, we are letting the culture shape our brains without a conscious choice. This is not freedom.

Chapter Eleven, ‘Socialization Part B: Adult Play (Sex and Sexuality)’ may make some uncomfortable with its frank discussion of sexuality. The chapter’s subtitle shows her hand: ‘Sex and the Net: Desensitization, Disinhibition, Arousal Templates, And the Death of Intimacy’. The link to the cycle of arousal and reward discussed above is obvious, and the disruption caused by i-media usage in the realm of sexuality is just as profound. Her tone remains matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. She is not explicit, but she describes behaviors and a changed sensibility toward sexuality, a mimetic pattern of unrealistic expectations about acts and performance learned from digital media which may disrupt true intimacy among people we know, our own relationships, and almost certainly our children. This chapter alone should encourage us to take a more involved stance on i-media.

Her solutions for both addiction and the management of digital media are common sense. She emphasizes limiting access in the most plastic years of childhood: none before two years of age; better, four; best, most conservative, and her own view, six (i-Minds, p. 86), and disciplined limitation even into adulthood. She emphasizes the importance of integrated bodily activity in human experience, what the McLuhans have come to describe as ‘incarnate’, in contrast to the experience of discarnate electric media: unstructured play, child-invented games outdoors, and actual bodily exercise in all forms.

. . .the evolutionary and true purpose of play itself is learning: cognitive and emotional learning. The whole concept of replacing play with learning in early childhood is entirely oxymoronic. (i-Minds, p. 128)

Her solutions relate to what Eric McLuhan has described, with an appropriation from Thomas Aquinas, as the sensus communis, a return to a fully integrated manner of living directly and socially in the body and its senses, in unmediated movement, touch, and face-to face conversation. In a discussion of Twitter and Facebook, she asks, ‘what is a friend and how many can you really have?‘  She finds an appropriate answer in the grooming behavior of primates:

There are some interesting studies on animal social groups: how they maintain friendships and how they keep status. . . In other primates. . .this is done through grooming, through touch. Grooming, for humans and other primates alike, however is logistically limited, as beyond family itself, we only have so much time to groom each other; therefore we can only have so many friends.

‘Grooming’ of course in the human context is much more than picking bugs off each other’s backs. Grooming is an inclusive analogy for close human social support of all forms: parenting, manners, teaching, and courtship.

. . .it appears no true friendship circle can have any depth after growing past fifty. Quite simply, we may feel good together (laughing or dancing or talking), but we cannot get to any depth of communication or emotion. As humans, we cannot follow or ‘groom’ a group that exceeds fifty. We are not fulfilled when our care or attention, or that of others becomes too broad. (i-Minds, p. 177)

This limit is certainly true for individuals. True to her intent, she does not take her discussion farther than a realistic social circle of “groomers. But this end-point to her discussion does not mean that the group of ‘more than fifty friends’ has no effect on the i-media user.

After we reach  that ‘fifty friends’ threshold, there is still deep communication and emotion present in the group, what Elias Cannetti called The Crowd, and what the McLuhans have described as corporate identity, the simultaneous ever-present participation in the moment, now enhanced by the ubiquitous and discarnate effects of digital media. In that present, there is an active back and forth between the action of the media on the pre-linguistic parts of the brain and the individual consciousness; call it unconscious if you wish. With her focus on individuals (remember her starting point is addiction), she does not seem to recognize that the very ground of social identity has had a dramatic shift from private to corporate, and that much of the anxiety over loss of connectivity stems from connectivity’s removal. Connectivity is now a principal source of social identity for many people. Relief of the distress caused by withdrawal is not quite a simple substitution of one thing for another. For many, the treatment will involve learning older and unfamiliar forms of identity validation, and rewiring the brain to recognize and value the reward. And the question always remains: will the present context of peers and culture support and reinforce the change at that essential pre-verbal level?

Changes in plasticity in any individual are always a slow evolution toward the new norm. In the media environment of the last fifty years, that norm has constantly changed. The entrenched pattern in the preverbal brain of course tends to resist; yet this is where the rewiring of the brain must begin. A great part of  what is experienced as resistance to change is the necessary time it takes the brain to rewire itself for the new situation under the recurring pressure of check and re-check in the moment, like waves shaping the shoreline. The individual in this transition, living between the interactive social surface of identity and the preverbal experiences distress. If the distress becomes extreme enough, the identity will self-protect with medication (alcohol, heroin), or will lash out violently in self-defense and self-assertion.

There are also other social commentaries to be written about ‘more than fifty friends’ which relate not to friendship, but another form of corporate identity, marketing and branding. Many people have observed that Facebook and its kin have become more about self-promotion than shared intimacy, where the image of success (happy smiling family in the right house, vacationing in the right place, in the right clothes, kids attending the right schools, with the right opinions) approaches a vision learned from advertising and catalogs. From there, one can digress in many related directions: how marketing since the advent of print as the introduction of mass media has affected capitalism; how the greater reach of marketing in the electric era has created markets without borders, and driven the expanding gap between the very richest and the rest; how marketing undermines critical thought and seduces workers onto the consumer treadmill with powerful brand images they identify with on one hand, and are consequently reluctant to criticize on the other. This is the much sought-after Teflon effect of brand marketing, whether the brand is associated with energy, automobiles processed food, or health care. Finally, there is the relation of corporate social identity and the pressure of consensus, which even beyond the boundaries of an incarnate peer group, can still exert an oppressive and a largely unrecognized force toward conformity. The pressure to conform starts with clicking ‘Like’, and then watching how many agree, and who they are.  The real intent of marketing is no longer to inform, but to get us to conform. And now some of us market to each other. Push this kind of social pressure to the extreme and you find something like the apparent marketing appeal of the Islamic State, who use digital media quite effectively.

Are concord and agreement between the deep preverbal percept in the individual and the environment, mediated by language and senses at the interactive surface, a necessary part of a healthy arousal / reward cycle? Probably; such stability is indeed a luxury, in families and cultures. And yet, I think freedom and creativity also live in this interval between consonance and dissonance, in the ongoing invention and adjustment of the plastic brain to changing circumstance. Too much dissonance leads to loss of identity, distress, and in the extreme, acting out with violence; too little leads to a closed society of oppressive consensus and corporate violence – think the Inquisition or the Third Reich. Can we appreciate how incredibly dynamic and paradoxical such a living system our consciousness is, in both the moment within each of us, and over the long term in the aggregate, through generations?  The waves constantly shape the shore. . .

But these deep big-frame topics are not the purpose of Dr. Swingle’s book. i-Minds: by Mari K. Swingle is exactly what its subtitle, How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species, claims to be: a detailed, rational discussion of i-tech addiction and the social effects of digital media on its users by a scientific expert in the field. i-Minds is also a concrete and specific introduction to the general public to the idea of media ecology, which should not be principally about a PhD. and tenure, but ought to be about the ordinary user’s critical awareness of media effects and the management of those identified effects for the social good. Her focused discussion on i-tech addiction and the debilitating social effects of too much uncritical use may help the man and woman on the street take a view of digital i-media that is less simply enthusiastic and a lot more critical.  The tenor of all our social interactions, the very nature of civility in the moment, is being shaped by i-media while most of us fiddle indecisively. We should admit than we can smell smoke, and it is not only second-hand — it is not only our children who are being seduced.  i-Minds sounds an alarm that should not be ignored, and offers insightful guidance how to control the blaze.


Swingle, Mari K.  i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species, Gabriola Island, BC Canada: New Society Publishers, 2016.

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About the Contributor

Howard Wetzel

Howard Wetzel
Howard Wetzel has been a hospital-based RN for more than three decades. He was introduced to the McLuhans in the early 70s, and has continued an active dialogue with Eric McLuhan since. He is an independent thinker with interests in health care, arts, theology, and media studies. He is interested in the impact of media on cultures and the Church in history and in the present. 

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