Is There a Terminal Velocity for Youth and Digital?

A canter through the research on the effect of ubiquitous digital technology on the young and some perspectives on what digital agencies can do to create enriching and rewarding digital experiences.

The seed for this idea was planted when I attended a talk about the effects of social media on the young, at my children’s Steiner school. A teacher remarked that he believed the onslaught of digital was creating a burnt-out generation. Working for a digital agency, I naturally objected, but later thought, what if the continuing increase of speed and intensity of modern life driven by technology was somehow hitting a physiological or psychological barrierA terminal velocity where they can go no faster, instead heating up and burning out? I decided to look into the published research…

Various studies have shown that medical students, mathematicians, jugglers, multilinguists and musicians all increase the volumes of specific parts of their brains as they practice their particular skills. A famous UCL (University College London) study also showed this is true for London taxi drivers, whose hippocampi, responsible for navigation, grow in proportion to the time they spend on “The Knowledge”.

Therefore, it appears that our brains are like a ‘muscle’ – the more we use a particular part of the brain, the more neural pathways we develop and the better we get at that particular skill. We can, therefore, rewire how our brains operate by practicing particular actions throughout our lives, but the effects are most profound before the age of 30.

MRI scans of the brain ranging from those aged 4 to 21 show clearly how the frontal lobes, responsible for reasoning and problem solving, are established. The process appears to follow the principle of “use it or lose it” – neural connections that get exercised are retained while those that don’t are lost. (National Institute of Mental Health and University of California Los Angeles)

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, asserts that by their 20s, today’s youth will have spent more than 20,000 hours online or playing video games. This coincides with the period when their brains are developing most, and has the effect of changing mental reflexes, habits and the way they learn and absorb information. Playing action video games, for example, helps people process visual information more quickly (Nature, 2003). Internet users develop new skills in scanning content quickly – the ability to read in different directions and are more sensitive to visual information. This is  particularly profound, given Malcolm Gladwell’s hypothesis that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be exceptional at something.

The powerful influence of digital is demonstrated by “The Google Effect” – documented by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University – a shift away from retaining primary facts, towards a skill for knowing how to search for them. On the face of it, this is an example of our profound adaptability, outsourcing a skill we’re not brilliant at (remembering lots of facts). But are we in danger of creating a society of amnesiacs? And given that what we know forms our framework for thinking, could this have a negative impact on our ability to conceptualise?

Heavy use of digital communications also has a measurably negative impact on tweens’ social cognition: their ability to read subtle communication clues gained from face-to-face contact is diminished (DANA foundation). Also, Robin Dunbar (famous for having defined his number) has measured increased satisfaction from face-to-face communication over other forms – and interestingly Skype conversation beats telephone, which beat email, texting and social networking. The more human the communication is, the more it makes us feel good – with text-based communication scoring higher when emoticons are used. 

However, getting the right balance is key, as has been evidenced by a University of Lausanne study of teens, with heavy users of the internet (>2 hours/day) showing a considerable increase of incidence of depressive illnesses – perhaps due to lack breadth of real world experiences and deep friendships. The study also indicates that non-internet users show a similar increase – perhaps because of feelings of exclusion, as social conversation, content and experiences have increasingly moved online. Moderate internet use appears to correlate with better mental health.

Reviewing all the data, I conclude that we have indeed hit a terminal velocity for youth and digital. Historically, as technology has evolved, so too has the rate of human cognition. But we may now be at a point of inflexion where these human limitations can result in challenges for people, like a loss of connection with friends, with the real world and themselves. Brands can provide the solutions.

Some will try to wind back the clock and pull the young out of the digital torrent by limiting access – this is certainly the solution that the Steiner school teacher would recommend. I disagree, I think the data also gives us a few clues about how to productively move forwards:

  • Firstly, ‘normal’ behavior has moved online (remember that non-internet users have a higher rate of depressive illness)
  • Secondly, people desire human-style and social connection through any channel and which are nuanced and create deep ties with others – ideally offline.
  • Finally, people want real world utility – useful experiences embedded into the world around them.

Digital experiences, if appropriately engineered, can connect us to those things that matter, giving us enriching and rewarding connection.

In conclusion, the research indicates that technology has indeed outpaced the abilities of human physiology. However, as much as technology presents a challenge it also presents an opportunity. An opportunity for clever brands to use digital to help overcome the chasm between technological possibilities and human capabilities. Clever brands are starting to use digital to help people overcome these limitations through creating experiences that solve these emerging challenges at the increasingly complicated intersection between life and technology, and thereby creating real and enduring value.

We have already seen some brands begin to realise this new opportunity to reconnect with customer in meaningful ways. For example, in a world where there is less physical human contact, Unilever developed an interactive, smile activated vending machine, helping to bring back the personal and powerful touch of human body language and of the smile, to help make people happier. In a world where people get together less often, Sneakerpedia created a global community platform around people’s passions to drive connection and collaboration that is just not possible in the real world alone. In a world where there’s more bad news than good, Coca-Cola extended moments of jubilation around the 2010 World cup into a global party. And in a world most where people don’t connect with nature or venture off the beaten track, Mamut used online communities to create 150 teams and inspired them to scale 150 mountains, all over the world, sharing their experiences as they go. Finally, in a world where people just don’t connect with the mechanics of their bodies or understand how to achieve well-being through a the right balance of physical behaviour, NikeFuel builds feedback loops which gamify daily life, giving us more self-awareness in a fun way.

Idea engineered by Omaid Hiwaizi, Planning Director, with particular thanks to Harvind Bhatti, and Robert Oliver, Andrew Gregoris, Nathan Flowers, James Buchanan, Chris BakerPete (and Charlie) Trainor.