CINDY RUSSELL, MD
Dr. Cindy Russell is chair of the Environmental Health Committee for the Santa Clara County Medical Association.
Most of us cannot live without our computers, text messaging, e-mail, and immediate access to the vast cloud of information—especially kids and teenagers who have grown up in the age of the Internet. In fact, more schools are integrating computers at younger ages, even in kindergarten. Forty-nine states are phasing out cursive handwriting altogether. What effects does it have, however, on learning, brain development, cognition, and brain health?
Studies have shown some interesting ways that technology is rewiring and shaping our brain, which may not be “all good.”
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet, with its distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered, superficial thinkers. What does that portend for our kids?
Multitasking and Internet Addiction
Nicholas Carr explains, in his book “The Shallows,” that we are changing the way we process information. “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning….The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli-repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive, that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”
Researchers from Stanford, in 2009, gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy and light media Internet multitaskers. They found that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted by “irrelevant environmental stimuli” and had less control over their working memory. In addition, they were much less able to focus on a particular task. Professor Clifford Nass, who led the research, stated intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.” (5)
“Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking.” Paul Thomas, author and associate professor of education at Furman University
Law School Professors Ban Laptops in Classrooms
Several years ago, professors who were irritated with students surfing the Web and hiding behind laptop screens began banning the use of the Internet or laptops in the classroom. Laptops have been banned in classes at Harvard Law School, Yale, George Washington University, University of Virginia, and South Texas College of Law, to mention a few. (4)(15) A 2006 study by Carrie Fried backed up the policies, demonstrating that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking. They more importantly found that the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning. (3)
A 2012 survey by Elon University, the Pew Internet, and American Life Project asked over 1,000 leaders in the U.S. their thoughts about cognition in our millennial generation. They were asked to consider how the Internet and its environment are changing, for better or worse. Overall, the survey found that multitasking is the new norm and that hyper-connectivity may be leading to a lack of patience and concentration. The “always on” ethos may be encouraging a culture of expectation and instant gratification.
Brain Maturation, Learning, Memory, and Intelligence
The maturation of intelligence requires quiet, deep thought, and time. Established research findings in cognitive science leads to the conclusion that laptop use, especially with Wi-Fi access, could interfere with learning.
The hippocampus, which lies under the cortex, is intimately involved in long-term memory storage. Initial experiences are stored and stabilized in the hippocampus and then later transferred to the cortex. Removal of the hippocampus does not affect long-term memories, but prevents new memories from forming.
Learning depends on the ability to transfer information from our working memory to long-term memory and weave this into other acquired knowledge. There is a bottleneck in the passage of working memory to long-term memory. We have a limited ability as humans to capture and process information. The Internet provides too many choices and too much information at once. Excess distracting information creates “overload,” preventing long-term memorization and important information is lost. No one disagrees that we need to protect our memories. As author Nicholas Carr highlights, personal memory is not just for the individual to function, but it shapes and sustains our collective cultural memory.
Brain Drain: Adverse Neurologic and Health Effects of Wireless Microwave Communications
A growing body of peer reviewed research is showing neurologic damage to fetal brain and other systems from Wi-Fi and other microwave wireless sources. In a prior article, “Why-Fi: Is Wireless Communication Hazardous to Your Health?” in the Sept/Oct 2010 SCCMA Bulletin, the full range of effects of EMF from our cell phones and wireless devices was discussed. New basic science research in the last three years is confirming these findings. Initially, the Bioinitiative report of 2007 reviewed the biological effects of low level EMF. It found that there was clear evidence of adverse effects to living systems at current environmental exposures and at doses well below the threshold of the International Commission of Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) safety guidelines. Current microwave safety limits are based solely on the heating of tissue and do not take into account research showing negative biological effects on DNA, cancer, protein synthesis, skin tissue changes, sperm motility and viability, cognitive functioning, and disruption of the blood brain barrier.
Current Research on Cognition and Wireless Communication
Fetal Radiofrequency Radiation Exposure From 800-1900 MHz-Rated Cellular Telephones Affects Neurodevelopment and Behavior in Mice. Scientific Reports. March 2012.
Aldad et al noted that neurobehavioral disorders are increasingly prevalent in children with 3%-
7% of school-aged children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The etiology is unclear, however, an association between prenatal cellular telephone use and hyperactivity in children has been postulated by others. To test this, he exposed pregnant mice to cell phone radiation throughout gestation (days 1-17), with a sham cell phone control group. He found that the exposed group had dose responsive impaired neurologic transmission in the prefrontal cortex and that the mice exposed in utero were hyperactive and had impaired memory. He concluded “that these behavioral changes were due to altered neuronal developmental programming.”(3)
Microwave Radiation Induced Oxidative Stress, Cognitive Impairment, and Inflammation in Brain of Fischer Rats. Megha. 2012.
Megha evaluated the intensity of oxidative stress, cognitive impairment, and brain inflammation in rats exposed to typical cell phone microwave radiation. They were subjected to 900 and 1,800 MHz EMF for two hours a day, for 30 days. They state, “Significant impairment in cognitive function and induction of oxidative stress in brain tissues of microwave exposed rats were observed, in comparison with sham exposed groups… Results of the present study indicated that increased oxidative stress due to microwave exposure may contribute to cognitive impairment and inflammation in brain.”
Effect of Low Level Microwave Radiation Exposure on Cognitive Function and Oxidative Stress in Rats. Deshmukh. 2013.
The author highlights the exponential increase in wireless communication devices we are exposed to. He evaluated the effects of cell phone radiation on oxidation in tissues, in addition to cognition in rats. They subjected rats to 900 MHz EMF for two hours per day, five days a week, for 30 days, with an unexposed control group. “Results showed significant impairment in cognitive function and increase in oxidative stress, as evidenced by the increase in levels of MDA (a marker of lipid peroxidation) and protein carbonyl (a marker of protein oxidation) and unaltered GSH content in blood. Thus, the study demonstrated that low level MW radiation had significant effect on cognitive function and was also capable of leading to oxidative stress.”
The Internet Can Damage Teenage Brains
A large radiologic study from China, published July 2011, looked at structural brain changes in Internet-addicted teenagers. It is estimated that 24 million teenagers are addicted to the Internet in China. The researchers found a consistent atrophy of grey matter in parts of the brain and shrinkage of the surface of the brain in those addicted to the Internet. The effects were worse the longer the addiction. In addition, the study revealed changes in white matter of the brain, which function to transmit messages in the brain to the grey matter. They concluded these structural abnormalities were most likely associated with functional impairments in cognitive control.
“It strikes me as a terrible shame that our society requires photos of brains shrinking in order to take seriously the common-sense assumption that long hours in front of screens is not good for our children’s health. Dr Aric Sigman, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine
WHO Classifies EMF as a Carcinogen
In 2011, The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer1, associated with wireless phone use.”
France Bans Wi-Fi in Schools, But Replaces With Ethernet
The French National Assembly, March 2013, passed an amendment to ban Wi-Fi in their schools until it’s proven “safe for human consumption.” They instead agreed to install far safer, wired Ethernet cable connections. The Council of Europe has called for a ban on Wi-Fi use in schools and also recommends a wired alternative. In Austria, the Austrian Medical Society has also issued a policy statement asking for a ban of Wi-Fi in schools. The U.K. has a useful frequently-updated website on Wi-Fi in schools, which provides much scientific research. http://www.wifiinschools.org.uk/ Still the controversy persists.
The Cost of a Virtual World
There are a host of concerns with classroom technology, and the virtual world it creates, that have not been explored in the rush to “modernize” education and prevent our kids from becoming “computer illiterate,” despite the fact that computers are designed for ease of use. These issues range from distraction in the classroom, impairment of cognitive development and long-term memory, deficiency in learning social skills, Internet addiction, cyber bullying, access to inappropriate content, eye fatigue, and security risks to online learning networks. In addition, the sheer cost of computers and continuous upgrades is likely to break many school budgets. We have not mentioned the issue of toxic e-waste, another growing public health problem.
Common Sense: What to do
We will not get rid of the Internet or computers. We should not ignore, however, the enlarging body of science that points to real threats to public health and, especially, our children’s safety and well-being. The best approach is precautionary. Reduce the risk by reducing the microwave emissions. It is our obligation as physicians and parents to protect our children. They are the future and our legacy.
- Remove wireless devices (white boards and routers) in schools in favor of wired connections and fiberoptic.
- If there is Wi-Fi, then give teachers the authority to turn it off when not in use or if they feel it is not necessary.
- Ban cell towers near or on schools.
- Limit screen time on computers.
- Limit or ban cell phone use in the class.
- Limit or ban cell phone use at home.
- Do not allow laptops to be placed on laps.
- Undertake independent scientific studies on Wi-Fi and computer use that look at acute and long-term health effects.
- Train teachers how to recognize symptoms of EMF reactions.
- Conduct meetings with parents and teachers to address this issue in each school.
Reprinted with permission by the Santa Clara County Medical Association
- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr. 2010.
- Generation Y: The Internet’s effects on cognition and education. www.Triplehelixblog.com
- In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Carrie B. Fried. Sept 2006. http://www.mcla.edu/Academics/uploads/textWidget/3424.00018/documents/laptop_us e_in_the_classroom.pdf
- Banning Laptops in the Classroom: Is It Worth the Hassles? Kevin Yamamoto. http://intra.albanylaw.edu/cr/insttech/pdfs/laptopban.pdf
- Cognitive control in media multitasker. C. Nass. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/08/21/0903620106.abstract
- Fetal radiofrequency radiation exposure from 800-1,900 MHz-rated cellular telephones affects neurodevelopment and behavior in mice. 2012. Aldad. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22428084
- Effect of low level microwave radiation exposure on cognitive function and oxidative stress in rats. Deshmukh PS, 2013 April, Indian J Biochem Biophy. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23720885
- Microwave radiation induced oxidative stress, cognitive impairment and inflammation in brain of Fischer rats. Megha. Indian J Exp Biol. 2012, Dec;50(12):889-96. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=microwave+radiation+induced+oxidative +stress+fischer+rats+Megha
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- The effects of long-term exposure of magnetic field via 900-MHz GSM radiation on some biochemical parameters and brain histology in rats. Celikozlu SD. Electromagn Biol Med. 2012 Dec;31(4):344-55. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22676902
- France Bans Wi-Fi From Schools—We Should All Do the Same. http://www.francesfox.com/france-bans-wifi-school/
- High Wired: Does Addictive Internet Use Restructure the Brain? Scientific American. June 17, 2011. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=does- addictive-internet-use-restructure–brain
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- Rats Exposed to Cell Phone Microwaves Suffer Long-Term Memory Loss, According to New Study by University of Washington Researcher. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/12/991202070403.htm
- Spatial memory and learning performance and its relationship to protein synthesis of Swiss albino mice exposed to 10 GHz microwaves. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23952535
- Alterations of visual reaction time and short term memory in military radar personnel. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23785684
- Relationship between cognition function and hippocampus structure after long-term microwave exposure. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22998825
- Impairment of long-term potentiation induction is essential for the disruption of spatial memory after microwave exposure. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23786183
- Influence of microwave radiation on synaptic structure and function of hippocampus in Wistar rats. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17535652
- A aquaporin 4 expression and effects in rat hippocampus after microwave radiation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20137298
- Relationship between millimeter wave irradiation in pregnant mice and c-Fos protein expression in hippocampus and learning and memory functions in their offsprings. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16405774
- Effects of 7 Hz-modulated 450 MHz electromagnetic radiation on human performance in visual memory tasks. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12465659
- Data Security Is a Classroom Worry, Too. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/business/data-security-is-a-classroom-worry- too.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0