‘Alpha generation’ will have fewer artists, musicians — and digital devices may be to blame

BUDAPEST, Hungary — For most people of a certain age, their brains tend to see the “big picture” before settling in to focus on the details. Those growing up in the digital age however, are being rewired to see the world a whole lot differently. Researchers in Hungary say children who start using digital devices at a young age pay more attention to tiny details and less to the whole picture.

A team from Eötvös Loránd University finds growing up with a mobile device or tablet in your hand alters how the brain works. The phenomenon will likely lead to more scientists in the coming decades, but fewer artists and musicians. They add that teaching methods may even have to change.

The “Alpha generation,” or children born after 2010, live with constant exposure to digital technology on a daily basis. Not only does this change how they view their surroundings, researchers say it affects their cognitive, emotional, and social development as well.

“Focusing on the global picture helps us in perceiving the world in meaningful, coherent patterns, and not just as a bunch of unrelated spots,” study first author Veronika Konok says in a university release.

Children can’t see the forest for the trees

stars sun perspective
If you said “star,” you focus rather on the details. If you said “sun,” then rather on the global pattern.
(Credit: Alpha Generation Lab / Eötvös Loránd University)

Researchers point to an image featuring stars in the pattern of a sun as an example of this altered way of thinking.

“We automatically process the global pattern even if we intend to pay attention only to the details. “For example, if we have to focus solely on the small details of a picture like above to decide if they are sun-shaped or not, we cannot ignore the big picture (which can be different from the small shapes) and this slows down our reaction,” Konok continues. “However, if we have to focus on the big picture, the little details do not confuse us, because we do not process them automatically.”

The study reveals that children using smartphones or other mobile devices differ in this skill. When they had to press a button upon seeing a sun either at the global or local level, they processed the details first. These youngsters responded faster when the target was at the local level, in contrast with peers or adults who don’t overuse gadgets.

The researchers verified the discovery by getting more than 120 children between four and six years-old to play a short game on a tablet. It caused detail-focused attention in the short term, regardless of whether they had ever used a tablet before.

“Interestingly, 6 minutes of playing with a balloon-shooting game was enough to induce a detail-focused attentional style in a consecutive task,” study leader Professor Adam Miklosi says. “In contrast, children who played with a non-digital game (a whack-a-mole game) showed the typical global focus.”

Long-lasting impacts on the ‘Alpha generation’

The team adds these findings have far reaching implications. A child’s brain is very plastic at this age; meaning early exposure to smartphones and tablets may have a significant long term affect.

“The effects of early-life experiences on cognitive processes can be long-lasting and robust,” researchers write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“Use of mobile touch screen devices (MTSDs) in toddlers and preschoolers is markedly increasing and the age at which youth begin to use these devices is becoming lower. Compared to earlier eras, young children are exposed to different kinds of stimuli during a developmental phase characterized by exceptional neural and cognitive plasticity. The short and long-term consequences of such exposure are largely unknown.”

Previous studies find watching too much TV also has a connection with deficits in attention, executive functioning, academic performance, and language development. Teachers may need to find new ways of presenting educational material to kids, the researchers conclude.

“The atypical attentional style in mobile user children is not necessarily bad, but different for sure, and we cannot ignore this – for example in pedagogy,” child psychologist Krisztina Liszkai-Peres notes.

People who pay attention to details are more skillful at analytical thinking, but less creative and have weaker social skills. Researchers estimate a quarter of children consistently use smartphones. Studies have shown they are more likely to suffer depression than those who limit their screen time.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.