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Is Facebook “infantilizing” Us?

No one likes to be called a baby, whether they are age five or 35. That’s one reason why recent comments by British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield that today’s technologies may be “infantilizing the brain” are inspiring heated debate – and plentiful misunderstanding. I don’t agree with all that she said about virtual social relations, but she’s right to raise these fears. Only through well-reasoned public discussion and careful research can we begin to understand the impact of digital life on our social relations and on our cognition. Recently, I was asked by the Neuronarrative blog to comment on the brouhaha:

What did she say? In a statement to the House of Lords and in interviews, Lady Greenfield first pointed out that our environment shapes our highly plastic brains, and so it’s plausible that long hours online can affect us. She’s right. “Background” television is linked to attention-deficient symptoms in toddlers. High stress impedes medical students’ mental flexibility. I agree that “living in two dimensions,” as she puts it, will affect us.

As a result of video games and Facebooking, are we acting like babies, living for the moment, developing shorter attention spans? Again, she’s right to worry. Facebook and video games aren’t passive. Yet much of digital life is reactive. We settle for push-button googled answers, immerse ourselves in “do-over” alternate realities, spend our days racing to keep up with Twitter, email and IM. This way of life doesn’t promote vision, planning, long-term strategizing, tenacity – skills sorely needed in this era.

Consider this issue as an imbalance of attention. Humans need to stay tuned to their environment in order to survive. We actually get a little adrenaline jolt from new stimuli. But humans need to pursue their goals, whether that means locating dinner or hunting for a new job. By this measure, our digital selves may be our lower-order selves. As ADHD researcher Russell Barkley points out, people with the condition pursue immediate gratification, have trouble controlling themselves and are “more under the control of external events than of mental representations about time and the future.” He writes that ADHD is a disorder of “attention to the future and what one needs to do to prepare for its arrival.” Today, as we skitter across our days, jumping to respond to every beep and ping and ever-craving the new, are we doing a good job preparing for the future?

Finally, Lady Greenfield spoke about two types of social diffusion prevalent in digital living. First, she correctly points out that today’s fertile virtual connectivity has a dark side: it’s difficult to go deeply when one is juggling ever-more relationships. This is both common sense, and backed up by research showing that as social networks expand, visits and telephone calls drop, while email rises. Second, Lady Greenfield observed how virtuality distances us from the “messiness” and “unpredictability” of face-to-face conversations. In other words, digital communications can weaken the very fabric of social ties. As I wrote in my book Distracted, an increasingly virtual world risks downgrading the rich, complex synchronicity of human relations to paper-thin shadow play.

If it weren’t for the Net, I likely wouldn’t have found out about Lady Greenfield’s comments, nor been able to respond to them in this way. Yet going forward, we need to rediscover the value of digital gadgets as tools, rather than elevating them to social and cognitive panacea. Lady Greenfield is right: we need to grow up and take a more mature approach to our tech tools.

Addendum: recently published part two of my interview with them.

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