Our dependence on digital devices may affect sleep and memory

June 26, 2014 by Clio Korn, The Conversation
Waiting for the next notification. Credit: Sabphoto/Shutterstock

As smartphones have become ubiquitous, parents and teachers have voiced concerns that a technology-rich lifestyle is doing youngsters harm. Research on this question is still in its infancy, but other branches of study can give us a clue to what we are likely to find. Studies on stress, sleep and memory suggest how modern technology might influence our brains and behaviour.

Need for speed

The speed of requires us to process more information in a given amount of time than before. This effect is enhanced when we use multiple devices at once. This intensity of stimulation, and the speed of it requires, affect the nervous system in different ways.

Such stimulation activates the body's stress response system in order to allow us to deal effectively with the situation. That response evolved in humans to deal with immediate stressors, such as being chased by a predator. It is beneficial when the stress, or intense stimulation, is short term. For an athlete about to compete, a student about to sit an exam, or a lawyer about to cross-examine a witness, the burst of adrenaline and focus that the stress response provides are useful to successfully completing the task at hand.

However, there is a growing body of evidence that chronic activation of this system can be damaging to our health. The stress response affects all sorts of body functions, from how we store energy to how our immune systems work, and continuous activation of this response may influence our susceptibility to eating disorders, , depression and addiction.

Given how continuous and rapid-fire this stimulation often is, it is likely that our use of technology is engaging our system. If that's the case, this is a prime route by which technology could alter brain function and behaviour.

No rest, no peace

A second avenue by which technology use could affect our brains and behaviour is . Sleep deprivation and disruption affects memory, executive function and mood. People now sleep significantly less than they used to, and this is particularly true of younger generations. Increased use of computers and mobile phones, especially just before bed, is correlated with increased , suggesting that use of these technologies may be contributing to the epidemic levels of our society is now experiencing.

Presented with the limitless information and entertainment available on the Internet, it can be hard to turn away from the next TV episode, YouTube video, or Facebook update and make ourselves go to sleep. The Onion's recent satire – Man honestly thinks he is going to bed early – rings awfully true.

Scattered memories

In addition to indirect effects on the brain via sleep and stress, could have more direct effects too. Working memory is a limited resource, and the precision with which information is stored decreases as working memory load increases. Our propensity to use different technologies all at once might therefore affect memory and attention.

Sometimes the speed and intensity of our digital lifestyle may be useful. For example, research suggests that training on tasks enhances people's ability to focus their attention. So perhaps juggling multiple technologies simultaneously enhances our ability to multitask.

At the moment, we can't be sure whether our use of digital devices will have a positive or negative effect. The development of modern technologies has been too fast for research on their effects to keep up. But it should catch up before too much harm is caused.

Explore further: Immune response affects sleep and memory

Related Stories

Immune response affects sleep and memory

June 12, 2014
Sickness-induced insomnia is common because of link between brain and immune system

Sleep-deprived mice show connections among lack of shut-eye, diabetes, age

December 11, 2013
Sleep, or the lack of it, seems to affect just about every aspect of human physiology. Yet, the molecular pathways through which sleep deprivation wreaks its detrimental effects on the body remain poorly understood. Although ...

Study in fruitflies strengthens connection among protein misfolding, sleep loss, and age

February 20, 2014
Pulling an "all-nighter" before a big test is practically a rite of passage in college. Usually, it's no problem: You stay up all night, take the test, and then crash, rapidly catching up on lost sleep. But as we age, sleep ...

Extreme sleep durations may affect brain health in later life

May 1, 2014
A new research study led by Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May, shows an association between midlife and later life sleeping habits with memory; and links ...

Memory accuracy and strength can be manipulated during sleep

April 8, 2014
The sense of smell might seem intuitive, almost something you take for granted. But researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center have found that memory of specific odors depends on the ability of the brain to learn, process ...

Sleep disturbances hurt memory consolidation

March 28, 2012
Sleep disturbance negatively impacts the memory consolidation and enhancement that usually occurs with a good night's sleep, according to a study published Mar. 28 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

Recommended for you

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

High-dose vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles for children

July 18, 2017
Giving children high doses of vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles, a new study has found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.