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Social Media Changes Brains




You may have thought that the headline should read “Social Media Changes Minds” because of all the brain-picturewonderful things that social media adds to our lives (I’ll let you determine what wonderful things it does for you). But across the pond there’s concern that social media is actually changing the brains of young users. Of course, this story wouldn’t be any fun if it was simply saying that the kids are getting smarter and smarter because of endless hours in front of a screen while forming ‘relationships’ (more on this one later). Au contraire! Apparently the brains of young folks are, in effect, being rewired by these kinds of interactions and this rewiring is not a positive thing.

Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield tells the world in the Daily Mail that more parents are finding their kids don’t communicate well and have difficulty concentrating away from their screens. The flattering assessment of social media continues with information like

Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.

I think this may be happening to folks of all ages. The difference is that the impact on a child’s brain is more profound because it is still developing whereas an adult brain is already developed. Adult behavior that changes is just that; a behavior that can change. The fear is that developing brains can actually be altered because of this MTV generation on steroids approach to media. Lady Greenfield continues by saying:

‘It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,’ she said.

My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.

‘I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,’ she said.

So there is little doubt that the manner in which we interact is being changed by the Internet. Most of the coverage has been about the evolution of our ability to communicate with more and more people. One could argue that our communication is becoming an inch deep and a mile wide but that makes sense in a world that too often values quantity over quality.

So what is it Pilgrims? Are we becoming a society that is mistaking typed interactions with our virtual friends for what once defined a real relationship like face to face conversation, a handshake, a phone call and even spending extended time in the direct presence of another person? Are your online relationships as real as traditional ones? Let’s talk about it around the warm glow of the comment fire. Pass the virtual marshmallows!

  • http://www.successdoctor.com/ Andy Catsimanes

    What was the questions again?

    Andy Catsimanes’s last blog post..Economic Crisis Killing Your Dreams?

  • http://www.twitter.com/joehall Joe Hall

    Anyone that compares social media, to “killing, skinning and butchering an animal” has an obvious agenda that isn’t based on objective scientific research. Pointing to shorter attention spans and young people being more self centered doesn’t present any realistic scientific findings. Show me were the neural pathways are migrating and then we can have a chat, until then it just sounds like a bunch of academic hogwash.

  • http://www.grahamjones.co.uk/ Graham Jones – Internet Psychologist

    Once again the Daily Mail is attempting to find fodder for its anti-internet campaign (strange for an organisation with a large online presence…ho hum). However, Baroness Greenfield is mistaken in her theoretical assumptions. Once again we see a well known scientists basing their theories on assumption, rather than fact and evidence. Not only does that do harm to parents who will worry about their children’s brains, but it does harm to the reputation of science – something for which Baroness Greenfield has previously done so much good. The evidence, such that we have, suggests the reverse of the fears. It suggests that children’s brains are being improved, not harmed, by modern technology.

  • http://twitter.com/socialmedia411 Jeff

    Frank,

    While it’s obviously far too early to evaluate any long term changes in brain development resulting from the use of these applications/technologies (regardless of age), I see plenty of anecdotal evidence of interpersonal behavioral changes over the past few years that bothers me.

    In business especially, I see people (but predominantly younger people) substituting texting for a phone call or personal meeting where the later is clearly necessary to deliver & receive deeper information & context than could ever be exchanged via text messages. The typical response is “why should I waste my time calling or meeting when I can just text?” The end result is that in many cases these people fall behind, or at least trail others that have developed good interpersonal social skills. And the funniest part is that they have no idea why their lack of social skills might inhibit their professional career tracks. They don’t understand the value of relationships in business, and that relationships are bonded in personal interaction.

    I’ll leave it up to the researchers to determine the long-term effects of brain development / concentration / etc. but I’m with you on the issue of real relationships. Technology is great and it has many, many benefits in both personal and professional life. But let’s not forget about the need for and benefits of the development of solid social skills.

  • http://www.readybike.net Nishi

    This is a great post! I would offer, though, that if there is a Net Generation, that it’s reach is much farther than just the under 30 year-olds, and that in fact people of older ages – while they are more linear in cognitive patters of processing – some are rapid adopters of a more networked and data-rich world.

  • http://www.starwpthemes.com Brandon Walker – Best Wordpress Templates

    To be honest I think the internet is taking over kids lives. It’s only recently that the internet has become a big thing. Kids are just growing up accepting it like it was always there, but in fact it’s only really become a big thing in the last 10 years or so.

    Brandon Walker – Best WordPress Templates’s last blog post..Daily Planet – Best WordPress Themes

  • http://www.nickstamoulis.com/seo-consultant.html Nick Stamoulis

    Great article! I think this study has its valid points, but overall I feel that kids are learning how to communicate using the #1 area that they will use throughout most the of their lives…the web/social media outlets…

    Older generations remember the times that if you wanted to speak to someone it would be over the phone, mail or in person…for networking it was done in person. I think the web has helped people become (different) but better communicators. Anyway that is my 2 cents :o)

  • http://www.marketingtom.com Alun John

    This article caught my eye through someone’s Tweet! I suppose the fact that it was published in the Daily Mail says much about the angle the author is coming from and how much you can actually believe it. The simple truth is yes, our children are using, and are going to use, Social Media for all commumications. The key in learning is to teach them how to use it in the right way and to make sure it is not to the detriment of their other communications skills.

    On another note it was quite interesting to see how the Daily Mail wrote about the govt’s recent announcement of a new Digital Director. It was very dismissive and focused mainly on the £160k salary, which was actually advertised as between £80-160k – quite a difference. Alarmingly 2 out of the 57 comments praised the govt and Social Media and they were rated by readers of the Mail as poor (the only ones to be rated this way). All other comments completely dismissed Social Media. The worry is that the public (albeit Tory in this case) is starting to believe the nonsense the Mail is spouting!

    Alun John’s last blog post..Beware Web Developers Who Know Nada!

  • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

    Looks like we struck a neuron here. Thanks for all of your POV’s

    @ Andy Catsimanes – I am still laughing from your response. Can’t remember why…..just laughing.

    @ Joe Hall – considering real science and research requires time to gather and observe I suspect we will have to wait for something that a ‘scientist’ would accept. I’m not sure we have the patience though ;-)

    @ Graham Jones – theories will abound on both sides of the argument for sure. Having been a teacher at one point in my life (before the Internet played the role it does now) I can attest to the shortened attention spans and the negative impact on the cognitive abilities of children across the board

    @ Jeff I hear you for sure. I learned this morning that as a cost cutting and efficiency matter there are more weeding invitations being e-mailed. While the traditional ones are often overdone I have to say that an e-mail invite is so sterile that it takes away from the importance and depersonalizes one of the most important things many folks do

    @ Nishi we are all part of the Internet generation to one degree or another I suppose.

    @Brandon I have simply tried to help my kids keep the Internet in perspective. There is ALWAYS the chance to have too much of a good thing with anything. Proper perspective helps to shape action for them.

    @ Nick Stamoulis – kids are definitely communicating, there is no doubt about that. The question is when does communication become a relationship and by whose definition?

    Thanks to everyone for checking in

    Frank Reed’s last blog post..Be Armed With Internet Marketing Knowledge

  • http://www.invesp.com/blog/ Rachel Burkot

    I agree with many of your points, especially technology impacting communication and leading our society to value quantity of relationships over quality. I think this is easily demonstrated in new fads like texting. Even when it would be quicker to pick up the phone and have a 2 minute conversation, rather than spending 20 minutes texting back and forth, texting has become the norm. This is because our generation has come to value communication that does not require face-to-face contact. It’s easier that way. Sure, the quality of the relationships isn’t as good, but today’s technology has taught us to value convenience, and that’s what texting and so many other fads bring us.

    Rachel Burkot’s last blog post..How to Understand Buyer Motivation Without Telepathy: Start with Keywords

  • f0ul

    I think this is just an issue being seen the wrong end of the telescope – for agenda reasons!

    If there is more information being thrown everywhere, then it takes a greater skill to be able to spot the important stuff and dump the rest.

    The skill of the Net generation is to be able to put an idea into a sentence – rather than 500 words! you get the idea by just looking, and the indepth analysis by clicking.

    The biggest problem kids are going to get in real life, there is no ability to delete an opposing view – and how will they learn to argue their case without getting violent?

  • Oded Noy

    Interesting article. I guess at the end of the day, its all about education. The idea of Social interaction is not new… the idea of using tools to communicate is not new either.

    Kids in general have shortened attention span. I heard in NPR a research (sorry forgot he exact source – sorry) that 7 year-old kids today have the same concentration ability as 5 year-old did 40 years ago. The main point there was all about kids not have unstructured play.

    My 4 1/2 year old preferred YouTube over regular TV. He can control the pace and what he watches. Although he gets more ‘instant gratification’ he is also much more engaged and active than watching TV.

    I guess the rest is all about education and parental involvement around the activities.

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  • http://www.eraserve.com/tutorials/ Andrew – MS Access Tutorials

    I think one needs to use common sense and Structure the young ones time on the web. I also think one should monitor where they go.
    My children were not allowed to converse or multi play until their pre-teens. I saw no benefit in doing otherwise and many adverse issues for the opposite.