The rise of digitalisation, has brought many great boons, as well as dangers and detriments with it. The average person never strays far from a digital device, or a product of the modern world. We have intertwined ourselves with technology throughout every aspect of our day, using it to wake up in the morning, have access to more information than we could ever hope to absorb, communicate with friends and relatives across the globe, or order food when all the pans need cleaning. The benefits of technology are unmistakable, and even this text couldn’t have been written without its presence, but the benefits come paired with a myriad of negative effects. Effects that are often overlooked, in great part because of a lack of knowledge, which I intend to shine a light on through this article. To name a few downsides: we lose our ability to properly focus, we fail to properly learn academic or social skills, the backlogs of our minds are permanently clogged by the downpour of content, and the addictive nature of technology keeps us in its grasp. There’s an exhaustive list of downsides to cover, but I’ll focus on downsides that I had a more personal connection with. These mainly being how one’s development severely lacks when one strays too long in the lands of digital media, as well as the lack of an ability to properly focus. I’ll explain this through my personal experiences, scientific literature, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (House of Usher).
For starters, I’ll begin with summarising House of Usher, as well as briefly explaining the parallels between digital media. I’ll attempt to not spoil the plot too much, because it is a highly recommended reading. The story opens with the narrator’s arrival at his friend Roderick Usher’s mansion, per the latter’s request. We learn his friend briefed him in a letter that he is suffering from “an acute bodily illness – of a mental disorder which oppressed him,” (p. 232) as well as hopes that the narrator could alleviate some of his burden. When the narrator gazes his eyes upon the house, its decrepit and dilapidated state swiftly becomes apparent to him, as he described it to be “a house of gloom,” with an air which was “sickly and unhealthy … slow-moving, heavy, and grey.” (p. 231) The atmosphere of the house appears all but welcoming, exuding a dreary and gloomy atmosphere. This atmosphere has significantly affected its owner, and throughout the story also begins to affect the narrator. When one lingers on their device, for example playing video games or doom scrolling through social media, they will suffer dreadful consequences comparable to the mental decay of the characters in Poe’s story.
Roderick’s case is an interesting one, as his condition practically traps him in his own house, just as one becomes trapped on digital media. The narrator explains Roderick “suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable … the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.” (p. 235) Roderick is suffering from a condition referred to as hypochondria, resulting in extreme sensitivities to numerous aspects of the natural world, in turn solely allowing him to reside in a fabricated reality, accompanied by a myriad of books and musical instruments (p. 236). His condition is similar to what one experiences when they dwell on digital media for extended periods of time, in two differing yet connected ways.
Firstly it’s the mirror image of users requiring consistently more stimulating content, in turn making the real world comparably boring. Akin to one who uses substances of abuse, and requires consistently higher doses to obtain the same heightened mood, media consumers require facilitation by increasingly entertaining, perverse, or aggressive content. This is referred to as increasing tolerance, the constant need for increasing dosages. Because users dwell on social media too long, their view of the world becomes warped, ensuring when they enter the real world, they are alienated. This has been researched by Mrug et. al (2014), where the team concluded that high amounts of media consumption was linked to a desensitisation of violence. Participants who were more accustomed to digital violence, were less likely to emphatically respond to real world events. Which showed how digital media users wouldn’t be able to properly respond to real world events.
Secondly it traps a consumer in the digital space as the skills they learn there don’t transfer over to the real world. I believe this is best illustrated with my personal experience. Everyone has their vices, with varying degrees of consequences, and for me this has been video games. Around the age of twelve I discovered the blissful escapism video games can offer, and specifically Minecraft’s endless replayability. During that time my parents were going through a divorce, which started to take a toll on me. Instead of processing the emotions I was going through, it was easier to immerse myself fully into the digital world, teaching myself a method to cope with the nasty things life threw at me. At first this was a lovely experience, but swiftly the situation degraded into addictive behaviour, trapping me in video games. Just as Roderick Usher wasn’t able to leave his dwelling, relegated to his music and books, I wasn’t able to stop myself from indulging into my addictions. When entering secondary school, I carried this burden with me, ensuring my school grades degraded severely, I wasn’t able to properly make friends in the real world, and my focus was all over the place. What once started as a method to cope with emotions, had become a volatile habit, overtaking my life step by step. Unfortunately, my experiences weren’t unique whatsoever. It appears that playing video games seems to significantly affect grades. Michel Desmurget stated this nicely: “The more time spent playing, the more marks drop.” (p. 59) The amount of video games children play, directly correlates to their grades, which drop fairly linearly. When children spend their time playing video games, obviously they do not have time for studying, but the effects are more detrimental than this straightforward and glaring downside. We are social creatures, which means a great part of our life is spent with other people. How we learn is through social interaction, mimicking the social behaviour of others to understand different social constructs we find ourselves in. We have evolved in such a way that this needs to happen physically, as learning anything through a screen is simply not the same as through a person in flesh and blood. Even though I had little trouble making friends online, this didn’t translate to any friendships outside of the video games I played. Barr and Hayne (1999) demonstrated this phenomenon, by showing children a routine with a puppet in person, and on screen. They were then asked to copy the routine the best they could, with those who were only shown it on screen performing the task significantly worse than those who were shown the routine in the real world. I experienced something similar as well. Because a lot of my social interactions at the time were online, I never properly learned how to engage socially in the real world. We humans need to have as much real world interactions, because it is not the same when you’re looking at something through a screen. Which makes Roderick’s fate all the more sad, because he is not able to truly experience the world anymore. Only experiencing replicas of something is not the same as being there. I’m sure you’ve noticed how attending a concert is miles away from seeing it on the television in your living room. And when you solely expose yourself to simulated experiences, like Roderick Usher, you fail to learn proper engagement with the physical world, in turn trapping you in the copied, or digital world. Apart from not properly learning the skills you need to function in the real world, you are literally trapped by the extremely addictive nature of digital media, just as Roderick Usher has become trapped. Every now and then I check my screen time, and the hours lost merely scrolling, not remembering anything, are a scary thing indeed. Considering the myriad of publications on the addictive behaviour of digital media, I would argue it is abundantly clear. (i.e., Cerniglia et. al (2017), Qin et. al (2022), Smith and Short (2022)) What I believe is more interesting to discuss are the further consequences of the trap.
Apart from becoming trapped in the digital world, you eventually start to lose the ability to properly think as well, which runs parallel to what fate the narrator suffers in House of Usher. The longer the narrator resides in the manor, the more his well-being appears to be affected, as he states: “It was no wonder that [Roderick] his condition terrified – that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” (p. 241) While his mind appeared completely sound and didactically efficient in the first part of the narrative, his sanity is dwindling evermore upon his extended stay. He begins to suffer hallucinations, and his words appear to contradict each other. John C. Gruesser discussed his dwindling sanity at length, by explaining discrepancies within the narration: “The contradiction regarding the tempest and the “wild light” in the final paragraph suggests that the narrator has lost his ability to separate fantasy from reality and has therefore become unreliable.” (2004, p. 86) The narrator’s descent into delirium is exacerbated by the preceding events, but has been set into motion upon entering the house, or the digital media trap. This ‘descent into delirium’ mirrors how one starts to lose the ability to focus, or even think properly when they excessively wander in the digital carnival. To think your thoughts, it’s paramount to have proper focus for continually engaging with the same topic, instead of multiple topics, or jumping to new ones constantly. Digital media appears to significantly disrupt one’s ability to stay on topic, because it teaches the user to rapidly focus on as many things at once. For playing video games this is an excellent skill, but when sitting in the classroom, trying to take a test, it will only ensure your attention lies everywhere but where it should be. Personally, I believe a great deal of my lack of focus in the past can be attributed to excessive media consumption, which mirrors ideas Desmurget poses. He explains how “when the brain ‘concentrates’, two things happen. First, the activity of regions important for the task concerned increases. Second, the activity of unnecessary regions, especially those related to processing disruptive external sensory flows, subsides” (2022, p. 129) When you focus on a task, the brain focuses on all areas that help you focus on that task, while lowering the activity in other areas. Playing video games does the exact opposite. To illustrate this more clearly I’ll use my Minecraft experiences again. Its community has become so large, a myriad of minigames evolved within the medium itself, one of these being Hypixel’s frantic gamemode entitled Bedwars. The goal is to swiftly eliminate all other teams, while surviving yourself, which requires your attention to be divided into two areas: defence and offence. It’s split further by needing to manage the tools you carry with you, the defences of your base, how to exploit the enemies’ weakness, combat between players, the items you collect, communication between teammates, and numerous more elements. Playing games like these teaches the brain to divide attention between many things at once, because if you lose track of any of the aforementioned elements, you will lose the game. This division of attention cannot happen if you are to properly focus on making a test, because the paper you are writing on needs to be the locus of your focus. Swing et. al (2012) showed this link between digital media consumption and a lack of focus. Their research compared the effect of videogames and television on one’s attention span in two population groups, one of children (6 to 12 years old) and another of adults (18 to 32 years old). The two groups had differing amounts of screentime, where higher amounts of screen time directly correlated to a lack of focus. Participants who exceeded two hours of daily use (TV/and or video games) scored significantly lower when tested compared to those with lower amounts. When exceeding two hours of screen time (a number that is actually quite low when compared to my own screen time), focus was significantly diminished. Coming back to House of Usher, where the sanity of the narrator dwindles, the attention span of individuals with high screen time is significantly affected. When consuming media, you may not entirely lose your mind, but the ability to properly focus, and thus think, diminishes severely.
So far I’ve discussed the numerous detriments that stem from excessive wandering in the lands of digital media. You become trapped in your digital devices, garnering addictions and not learning any proper skills necessary to thrive, or even survive in the real world. And when even attempting to break free from the trap, your severely diminished focus ensures any attempt to learn the skills you never learned in the first place are thwarted. This parallels the experiences of characters in House of Usher, who are either trapped in the mansion, or start to lose their sanity upon entering. I picked Poe’s work, because upon reading, I felt a personal connection to it. Although the consequences of my previous addiction luckily weren’t so severe as Usher’s mental state. Through sharing my personal experiences, I hope you may become slightly more aware of how you spend your time. Because the actions we partake in shape us, and I don’t believe we are shaped positively by a superabundant consumption of digital media. There are many upsides to technology, but in order to benefit from those, we must be careful not to succumb to the numerous dangers they bring with them.
Barr, Rachel, and Harlene Hayne. “Developmental Changes in Imitation from Television during Infancy.” Child Development 70, no. 5 (September 1, 1999): 1067–81. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00079.
Cerniglia, Luca, Francesca Zoratto, Silvia Cimino, Giovanni Laviola, Massimo Ammaniti, and Walter Adriani. “Internet Addiction in Adolescence: Neurobiological, Psychosocial and Clinical Issues.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 76 (May 1, 2017): 174–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.12.024.
Desmurget, Michel. Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children, 2022.
Edgar Allen Poe. “The Fall of the House of Usher” in Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, (2011). 231-246
John C Gruesser, Madmen and Moonbeams: The Narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, in The Edgar Allan Poe Review , SPRING 2004, Vol. 5, No. 1 (SPRING 2004), pp. 80- 90
Kostyrka‐Allchorne, Katarzyna, Nicholas R. Cooper, and Andrew Simpson. “The Relationship between Television Exposure and Children’s Cognition and Behaviour: A Systematic Review.” Developmental Review 44 (June 1, 2017): 19–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2016.12.002.
Mrug, Sylvie, Anjana Madan, Edwin W. Cook, and Rex A. Wright. “Emotional and Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life and Movie Violence.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 44, no. 5 (October 19, 2014): 1092–1108. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0202-z.
Smith, Troy, and Andy Short. “Needs Affordance as a Key Factor in Likelihood of Problematic Social Media Use: Validation, Latent Profile Analysis and Comparison of TikTok and Facebook Problematic Use Measures.” Addictive Behaviors 129 (June 1, 2022): 107259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2022.107259.
Swing, Edward L., Douglas A. Gentile, Craig A. Anderson, and David Walsh. “Television and Video Game Exposure and the Development of Attention Problems.” Pediatrics 126, no. 2 (August 1, 2010): 214–21. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-1508.
Qin, Yao, Bahiyah Omar, and Alessandro Musetti. “The Addiction Behavior of Short-Form Video App TikTok: The Information Quality and System Quality Perspective.” Frontiers in Psychology 13 (September 6, 2022). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.932805.
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