Living in the cybersphere: from addiction to adaption
BSc Business and Management student Saalar studies the interplay of finance, geo-economics and technology. He explores how technology has impacted the lives of students for better and for worse, and how we can take control of our online experience. Find Saalar on Twitter.
Studying at the University of London remotely, I realise that access to an abundance of technology is a boon to students like me. We can study and learn about nearly any topic of our choosing or use it as a platform to publish our research. The availability of such a vast ocean of information and the answer to any question within mere seconds was a feat never before possible in history, yet the concurrent generations could be argued to be the most misinformed and forgetful ones with an astonishingly short attention span.
From access to information to adaptive learning, technology has transformed the way students learn and interact with the world around them. For instance, readily available access to the University of London’s online library, databases, e-books, and other digital resources from anywhere in the world is a convenience that has never before been possible.
A major transformation in recent times is online education, only possible due to advancements in technology. Many pupils like me attend classes and complete coursework remotely from different corners of the world, allowing them to pursue their education without being constrained by geography or other factors.
Modern-day technology can be used to create personalized learning experiences that are tailored to each student's individual needs. For example, adaptive learning software uses data and algorithms to analyse a student's progress and adjust the learning experience accordingly, aiding the individual to learn at their own pace and focus on the areas where they need the most help.
However, the amount of ‘platforms’ that help students are equally responsible for hindering their success. In particular, YouTube hosts many documentaries, informational videos and resources that can add a wealth of knowledge to an inquisitive mind, quenching curiosities and nurturing interests. Yet YouTube is the culprit of distracting many, algorithms recommending us distracting videos of vlogs and hot topics that one finds too attractive not to click on. Nonetheless, the website has the merit of hosting helpful content, whereas platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat are an utter distraction. Short-form videos cater to the diminishing attention span and give no choice in what content is presented, rather composing an algorithmic mirror that feeds your most basic desires, throwing bait to see if you bite.
We live in a dystopian future where these mechanisms are watching, listening, and noting every minute detail to predict how to benefit from us. It’s almost magical; to be able to quell every fear and mental discomfort by transporting oneself into a world of fast fashion trends, following others’ lives, political outrage and online shopping. This digital world that is detached and individualistic simulates how a healthy mind can be subconsciously coerced by an algorithm, a horror now recognized but begrudgingly accepted.
Who does not find dread when the internet goes out, faintly remembering a time when digital media was not as widespread and entertainment was sought in physical sports or tabletop games? It could almost be considered a luxury to reminisce upon that time, as the newer generation is growing up on the internet and will have no reference to a life without it.
Worth mentioning here is the phenomenon of stress, which remains a long and recurring friend of students, showing itself in class, seminars, on stage and especially in exam halls. Under immense stress over a long period, be it due to procrastinating through a deadline or otherwise, the brain releases a large amount of cortisol, negatively impacting the hippocampus and reducing the density of grey matter. This reduces mindfulness and critical thinking, two crucial processes needed in any facet of life, not just in a learning mind. Meditating can assist with reinforcing grey matter and restoring mindfulness. Making a lifestyle change like this isn’t easy, taking nearly one to two years for the brain to make these adjustments, requiring commitment and removing distractions.
Distractions such as social media have become firm addictions, stimulating the nerve cells in the forebrain where the body’s reward and pleasure centre is located. Dopamine is the carrier of our addictions and gives us positive sensations that we want to feel repeatedly, looping us into the never-ending cycle of distractions, read procrastination. Likes, notifications, comments, videos etc. are the passengers on the dopamine train. Overstimulation leads us to a feeling of anhedonia, emptiness and numbness. This can lead to Depression as the dopamine that was once a reward for achievement has now turned into being not enough, losing its potency, much like how drugs do.
Our generation that will not only have to deal with resource crises but overpopulation and the threat of war will likely find themselves escaping in the aforementioned algorithm. The need for a fundamental change in human behaviour has never been more present, yet we glance past it like another YouTube video.
The importance of limiting device usage, detoxing from the digital world and controlling oneself to maintain focus is paramount and cannot be overstated. As well as our mental wellbeing, screen use can have a significant negative impact on our physical health, from eyesight damage and posture difficulties to disrupted sleep patterns. Moderating device usage is important for maintaining good physical and mental health, building and maintaining social relationships, and improving productivity. Who will moderate device usage? Phone or tablet manufacturers? Apps that we frequently use? Internet-service providers? Parents, teachers and friends? Obviously, it is the individual who can best regulate himself. The device-makers, service-providers and peers can only remind or warn us of over-use or screen-addiction. Until a more effective external way is found, it is us, the user, who must discipline himself in the interest of his physical, mental and social health.
We have new developments in technology to thank for being able to study anywhere in the world. By approaching the digital world more mindfully, we can safeguard our physical and mental health while continuing to benefit from all the opportunities that technology offers.
Saalar studies BSc Business and Management in the United Arab Emirates.