Brain Drain: Real Result of Digital Overload?

Constant use of electronic devices is taxing our brains and hindering our social interactions, a growing body of evidence shows.
But on "The Early Show," CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton suggested steps we can take to mitigate the impact -- and disconnect from digital overload.

It's turning out that juggling the steady stream of e-mails, text messages, online updates and computer use is gobbling up not only much our time, but our brain power, making us less productive, studies indicate. And one in particular, from Ball State University, shows the average American spends more time using media devices such as TVs, computers, cell phones and iPods than doing anything else.

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According to Ashton:

Scientists say juggling e-mail, texts, phone calls and other incoming information can change how we think and behave. Sometimes the changes are for the better, but more and more researchers say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

The average American adult now spends 8-1/2 hours a day staring into screens (information from the Council for Research Excellence). Researchers at the University of California San Francisco found that, when the brain is constantly stimulated, you hamper the learning process. And while many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multi-taskers actually have more trouble focusing, are more distracted and, researchers say, experience more stress. People think they're refreshing themselves by filling in small bits of time with games, emails, texts etc, but the researchers say it's actually fatiguing and making people less creative. Some neuroscientists go even further, saying our brains can become addicted to the digital stimulation.

Research done last year by UCLA scientist Dr. Gary Small, published in a book called "iBrain," shows daily doses of technology may be altering the way the brain functions, particularly regarding social skills. He suggests all that screen time may weaken the brain circuits involved in face-to-face interactions. He is concerned that fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during a conversation, are being compromised.

That could especially affect young people. "Generation X" is now "Generation Text." A study released this week by the Nielsen Group said teenagers average almost 3000 texts a month! That's four times as much as they talk on their cell phones. Texting is now the main way teens communicate with their friends. Some experts worry kids who are practically hard-wired since birth aren't getting the face-to-face social training they need later in life, on a job interview, and for maintaining relationships with friends outside the virtual world.

A recent study found that teens who are addicted to the Internet are more than twice as likely to be depressed or develop psychiatric problems. The lead researcher of the study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine earlier this month, says the depression might be caused a lack of sleep and stress from competitive online games. Children and teens, especially, need their sleep for development and concentration in school, so it's vital that they take a break from their digital devices, which include computers, TV and -- a particular teen favorite -- texting. You want them to form good habits early.

WHAT ARE SOME WAYS TO AVOID THIS BRAIN DRAIN OR INFORMATION OVERLOAD?

To prevent brain drain, you want to take a daily break from your devices. Turn off your devices -- or at least, try to lower the times you check your e-mail. Try to use that time to engage in face-to-face conversation, or do a lap or two around the block.

Also, get an appropriate amount of sleep -- don't skimp! Sleep can give the brain rest and a chance to repair itself. REM sleep stimulates the brain regions used in learning. Go for a Zen moment -- try meditating for a younger, healthier brain. Research suggests meditation preserves various regions of the brain. One technique, called integrative body-mind training, has been studied for boosting efficiency and connectivity in the brain. It's a Chinese technique and focuses on a "state of restful alertness" via posture, relaxation and balanced breathing with a coach.

Also, exercise -- one study found that adults who were more physically fit tended to have greater memory than those who are less fit. Physical exercise helps maintain good blood flow to the brain and encourage growth of new brain cells.
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