How Digital Technology Shapes Us

Course No. 9764
Professor Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
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Course No. 9764
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover what neuroscience has discovered about our brains "on" technology
  • numbers Consider the technological forces that influence our choices in almost all arenas
  • numbers Get a better understanding of the significant relationship between privacy and trust in the digital age

Course Overview

Many modern parents are concerned about how much time their children spend in front of screens, as well as the ever-growing volume of technology they are exposed to. After all, many children of all ages have regular access to televisions, computers, tablets, smartphones, and/or gaming consoles. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that children spend four to six hours every day on those screens, and that goes up to nine hours a day for teens, which would suggest these concerns are warranted.

As Professor Indre Viskontas of the University of San Francisco points out in the 24 eye-opening lectures of How Digital Technology Shapes Us, we are not the first generation to worry that new technology will harm our children. Since the beginning of recorded history, we have been underestimating the capacity of the human brain to adapt to and take advantage of emerging technologies. The printing press, the novel, the telephone, even writing—when each of these was first introduced, they were derided as if they would ruin civilization itself. And yet, more often than not, how these inventions changed society was far from predictable.

Are our worries about the rise of screen time well-founded? Or is it possible that we are simply acting out of a desire to keep things as they were, without fully imagining all the potential positives of new technologies? Already, our children have instantaneous access to information we would have spent hours or even days collecting just a few decades ago. And certainly, few adults would want to go back to the days before the internet, search engines, and streaming services made our lives so much easier; more enjoyable; and, in some ways, safer.

In How Digital Technology Shapes Us, Professor Viskontas shares some of the most exciting research into this relatively new topic, providing a scientific approach to judging the true pros and cons of our interaction with technology in the digital age.

Can Technology Change Your Brain?

If you spend hours and hours every day playing video games, will that screen time change your brain? The answer is, indeed, yes. But it’s not the screen time specifically that causes that change. If you spent all your time playing the piano, lifting weights, or working on a novel, over time, your brain would change too—because the brain is an organ that alters itself in response to our lived experience. As Professor Viskontas explains, our experience leaves an indelible trace on our neuroanatomy by affecting:

  • The firing rates of brain cells—how quickly and in what kind of pattern they send out their electrical messages;
  • Which chemicals the cell releases when activated, and which chemicals it readily receives;
  • How many connections a neuron is capable of making, that is, how bushy or sparse its projections are;
  • The synchronicity of activity across millions of cells, known as brain waves; and
  • Which brain regions respond to specific experiences or thoughts, and how efficient those responses are.

Our brain requires stimulation in order to function, and that’s why change is inevitable. Neurons in the brain must be stimulated to communicate with each other; cells that are not stimulated—socially isolated ones—die more quickly, especially during development. Since learning a new skill forges new connections in the brain and incorporates these cells into the already active mind, the question is not whether digital technology is good or bad, but rather how our brains are changed by it.

No Easy Answers

In How Digital Technology Shapes Us, you will learn that studies addressing the effects of digital technology reveal few easy answers. Just like almost everything else in life, there are many factors involved. For example, parents confronting the issue of screentime for children often wonder if it is best to remove screens altogether. And while adults must often spend time in front of computer and phone screens for work, many wonder if this extended interaction with technology can be detrimental to our brains and our health.

In most cases, it is less about the time spent in front of the screen and more about what you are doing. For example, if you and your 8 year old sit down together to explore a word-association game on your tablet or read a story on your e-reader, those activities are positive experiences for your child. Constructive parental/child interaction is one of the most important factors in your child’s ability to build a strong, healthy brain. On the other hand, if you spend your time watching videos instead of interacting with other people in the real, three-dimensional world, or if a teen is alone in his room on the computer all day without supervision and possibly finding questionable content, those can be detrimental experiences for the growing brain. And since our brains are constantly developing and changing based on our experience of the world, concerns about the effects of technology are not limited only to children and adolescents.

But while the pros and cons of screen use often depend on the specific circumstances, studies do reveal that:

  • Digital technology has likely negatively affected the quality of our sleep, particularly for young people;
  • The use of social media often results in increased feelings of sadness, jealousy, and envy;
  • There are sometimes troubling differences between relationships that begin through online dating services versus those that begin more traditionally;
  • Online pornography can become addictive and has an outsized ability to shape the brain, even leading to sexual problems, like erectile dysfunction; and
  • Our online choices—from shopping to art to politics—are being manipulated by algorithms more than we realize. And these algorithms often have goals that might not be aligned with our own.

But I’m Getting Better at Multitasking

Many of us believe we are adjusting well to this new digital technology with its constant demands on our time and attention. We’re learning to cope with bosses who want the ability to communicate 24 hours a day, friends who communicate solely through social media, emails that come in by the dozens every hour, and children who are on to the next application before their parents have learned to navigate the previous one. And let’s not forget how often many of us sacrifice sleep to find the peace and focus we need to work on projects long after everyone else has gone to bed and the digital onslaught slows down.

Sure, we all feel a bit overwhelmed from time to time, but most of us have become pretty good at multitasking—and that really saves us, doesn’t it?

Not really. As Professor Viskontas explains, multitasking cannot save us because our brain is not capable of true multitasking. It’s just not built that way. What we experience as multitasking is actually our brain flitting back and forth from this task to the next to the next to the next. That we can do, but in the process, we could be losing:

  • The ability—and opportunity—to perform deep work, to push our brain power to the limit and to think deeply about a topic or task without distraction;
  • The opportunity for deep reading, to completely immerse ourselves in a work task without distraction, leading to greater powers of imagination; and
  • The empathy that builds up when we think deeply about people who are different from us, to truly expand the tribe rather than reinforce tribalism.

The good news is that in this course, Professor Viskontas offers not only insight into the ways we can balance technology and other dimensions of our lives, but also how to understand how our brains can be “rewired” by good habits. With a better knowledge of the effects of technology, we can make better decisions for ourselves and those in our care, including the healthier ways we can connect with one another, both with and without technological tools like social media.

As you will discover, digital technology definitely shapes and changes us. And nothing about our interaction with these technologies is as straightforward or predictable as we might think. But once we learn how it affects us, we can make better decisions concerning our use of these technologies and we can help ourselves and our children adapt to a changing world that isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 26 minutes each
  • 1
    How Experience Alters the Brain
    It is the adaptable nature of the human brain that has allowed us to become who we are today and dictates who we will become in the future. Learn how our lived experience changes our brain wiring as well as the relative sizes of different brain regions. Each of these changes is susceptible to alterations resulting from our use of technology. x
  • 2
    Are New Media Shortening Attention Spans?
    Teachers claim that students' attention spans have drastically changed because technology is eroding their ability to focus. But what about adults? Explore the impact of technology on our own ability to perform "deep work" and whether or not multitasking is even a neurological possibility. x
  • 3
    Does the Internet Make Us Shallow Thinkers?
    While our brain circuitry evolved to support speech, reading is not an innate, passively acquired skill. Instead, the connections in our brains are shaped and reinforced as we learn to read. Compare the neurological difference between reading on the internet and reading a physical book—and understand why we need to ensure that the next generations acquire the skill of “deep reading.” x
  • 4
    Outsourcing Our Memory
    Has our ability to remember details declined as more and more information becomes instantly available on the internet? After all, why bother memorizing a fact you can so easily look up? Explore the positives and negatives of the internet with respect to memory creation, and learn how the latest technology might help us expand our memories to take full advantage of our human potential. x
  • 5
    Human versus Digital Content Curators
    Recommendations, whether from a real person or an algorithm, have an enormous influence on our behaviors. Consider how much of your digital content—e.g., social media, books, movies, political ads—is determined by an algorithm that might or might not have goals aligned with your own. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of these algorithms will help you make more informed choices. x
  • 6
    Virtual Realities and Our Sense of Self
    Given that our experiences affect not only how are brains are activated but also their structural anatomy, explore the many ways in which virtual reality can affect us. Learn why leaders of VR research are calling for a code of ethics, and why VR could also be a place where human imagination could thrive, leading to new ideas and inventions. x
  • 7
    Screen Time's Impact on Kids
    Does increased screen time enrich or impoverish children’s environments and how are their emotions influenced by digital media? You might be surprised to learn that “it depends”—just like almost every other aspect of parenting. Explore the many factors scientists are studying to help answer these crucial questions. x
  • 8
    Video Games and Violence
    We might easily assume that those who play violent games would be more likely to perpetrate violent acts than non-players—but the scientific research is less conclusive. Dig into the fascinating studies that have been addressing this issue for decades and learn how playing violent video games factors into overall cognitive development and perceptions of the world. x
  • 9
    Is Digital Technology Ruining Sleep?
    Although studies show we are not sleeping fewer hours than before the days of technology on the nightstand, the quality of our sleep has likely been affected—especially for young people. Better understand the lifesaving functions your brain performs while you sleep and how technology, used the right way, just might help you sleep better, allowing your cognitive functions to be stronger the next day. x
  • 10
    How "Dr. Google" Is Changing Medicine
    Have you ever used a search engine for medical advice? If so, you're certainly not alone. But how often does that search result in more harm than help? Consider the many ways in which technology has impacted the practice of medicine and the doctor-patient relationship, and the moral dilemmas that have resulted. x
  • 11
    The Virtual Therapist
    Is on-screen talk therapy as effective as in-person therapy? Studies show it is. And in some respects—with the addition of virtual reality, for example—it can be more helpful than in-person talk therapy alone. Explore the many ways in which technology can help both mental-health patients and researchers, as well as the associated risks. x
  • 12
    How Big Data Can Predict the Future
    Learn how big data is changing scientific research and deepening our view of ourselves and the world around us. But does the ability to process previously unimaginable amounts of data and jump from one finding to the next really help us understand the relationships between variables? What risks might we be taking without realizing it? x
  • 13
    Is Privacy Dead in the Information Age?
    Examine the privacy paradox, our increasingly lax attitude toward our own privacy and its many implications for our future. How often do you unwittingly sell your privacy for a store discount, a few more social media “likes,” or the convenience of choosing specific amenities at a vacation spot? Learn about the complex relationship between privacy and trust in the digital age. x
  • 14
    The Emotional Effects of Social Media
    Studies have shown that the use of Facebook (more than 1 billion users worldwide) often results in increased feelings of sadness, jealousy, and envy. Explore the neurological basis of our social interactions-where we focus our attention and why, how we make choices, and what is required for humans to maintain stable relationships. How do those factors interact with our social media usage? x
  • 15
    How Online Dating Transforms Relationships
    Examine the potential differences between relationships that begin through online dating services versus those that begin more traditionally. Discover which neurological processes we use in making our choices—whether a new car, new house, or a mate. How can we make sure we assess potential mates with careful deliberation if we use an online service? x
  • 16
    Technology and Addiction
    Substance addiction leaves traceable changes in the brain, from the structure of brain cells and regions to their connections. Learn how technology can “supercharge” experiences to affect us neurologically and biologically overall, particularly with respect to one of our strongest motivational drives: sex. x
  • 17
    Is the Internet Hurting Democracy?
    It is well established that the internet and other technologies can shape our political behavior and give one candidate an advantage over another. But what are the mechanisms by which we make our political decisions? You might be surprised to learn that differences between different political alignments can be seen in our brains. x
  • 18
    The Arts in the Digital Era
    In the digital age, who decides which art is of the best quality? Or rather, who builds the algorithms that decide? In a time of almost infinite choices, is there greater or lesser opportunity for unknown artists to put their work out there? And how has technology affected the artist's ability to learn deliberatively and experiment with all options? x
  • 19
    How AI Can Enhance Creativity
    Can artificial intelligence (AI) help us realize our fullest creative potential in the future, or will it become a hinderance we nevertheless can't live without? Learn about the many ways in which AI might help us become more creative than ever before. How could we harness the strength of machines to enhance our creativity, a trait we often consider one of our most revered human characteristics? x
  • 20
    Do We Trust Algorithms over Humans?
    No one deliberately taught you how to speak. After hearing and processing millions of words over many months—and with a brain that is wired for speech—you started talking. Dive into the world of machine learning to discover whether or not machines can teach themselves, the way we do, and what the implications might be both for machines and for ourselves. x
  • 21
    Could Blockchain Revolutionize Society?
    Learn what makes blockchain a social technology and why some researchers say it could be a force for good, bringing together disparate elements in a framework of trust. Could blockchain represent a giant leap forward in allowing us to be more confident in online transactions and lessen constant concerns about hacking? Explore the potential of this technology to take us both back to basics and into the future. x
  • 22
    Effects of Technological Metaphors on Science
    The metaphors we use when talking about the brain can limit our ability to think “outside the box” and perceive the real workings of the brain in all its complexity. Consider the many ways in which the computer metaphor, although popular, is a poor match for the human brain, and what scientists might miss by continuing to use it. x
  • 23
    Robots and the Future of Work
    What skills for success will the next generation need in a society with automation and robots as commonplace in the home as in the factory? Should everyone learn coding to prepare for work? Discover why many scientists discourage that outlook and why they believe an age of robots might help us learn more about ourselves than ever before. x
  • 24
    Redefining What It Means to Be Human
    A society with increased AI and robotics is not necessarily a dystopian environment with increased human isolation and decreased human activity. Explore our current definitions of human life and death to better understand where we are now and where we might be headed. x

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Your professor

Indre Viskontas

About Your Professor

Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Dr. Indre Viskontas is a Cognitive Neuroscience Affiliate with the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, where she has studied the emergence of creativity in patients with dementia.Dr. Indre Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is pioneering the...
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How Digital Technology Shapes Us is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 3.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great course l just finished listening to this excellent course. I enjoyed it greatly. I learnt a good deal of psychology, sociology, neuroscience among other things along the way of learning about the effect of digital media on our lives and society. The professor has an impressive knowledge, and her style of lecturing is engaging and interesting. I recommend this course highly and would give it five stars.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very engaging professor Great course. The content was interesting and relevant and the professor was extremely engaging. She helped make it even more interesting and captured my attention throughout. I highly recommend this class.
Date published: 2020-10-12
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