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Technology May Be Changing How We Socialize

December 4, 2008

Some scientists are concerned that time spent online is rewiring teenage brains.  

Current concerns go beyond violent video games, which often become the center of public attention.  Some researchers believe the virtual world could be affecting the way humans learn and interact with each other.

Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at UCLA, believes daily exposure to digital technologies can alter the way the brain functions.

According to Small, the longer one spends with technology, the more they will drift away from fundamental social skills.

He suggests that brain circuits involved in face-to-face communication can become weaker, which can lead to isolation, the inability to interpret nonverbal messages, and less interest in classroom learning.

Small believes the effect is strongest in those who have grown up with digital technology since toddlerhood, called digital natives.  He thinks it’s important for digital immigrants, those who did not grow up with digital technology, to increase their technology skills, while digital natives improve their social skills.

One 19-year-old digital native, John Rowe from Pasadena, California, spends up to 12 hours a day online, but believes Small is right about people he knows, but not him.

“If I didn’t actively go out and try to spend time with friends, I wouldn’t have the social skills that I do,” said Rowe, who spends three or four nights a week with his friends. “You can’t just give up on having normal friends that you see on a day-to-day basis.”

Socrates warned about the rise of written word 2,000 years ago.  He considered it a superficial means of learning when compared to oral learning.  In recent years, television sparked concerns that it would lead to more violent children, and would stunt their ability to learn.

Small lays out his concerns in his new book called “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.”  He recognizes that his argument that digital technology is changing the brain is not as easy as black and white.

Although Small’s argument is difficult to prove, brain scientist Tracey Shors of Rutgers University believes the argument is “interesting” and “provocative.”

Other scientists are skeptical. 

According to Robert Kurzban, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, scientists have a lot to learn about how a person’s experiences impact how the brain is designed to deal with social interaction.

Some believe the Google age may change the way we read.

According to Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” a child’s brain creates pathways that slowly allow more sophisticated analysis and understanding.

Wolfe calls the comprehension “deep reading.”  That level of comprehension takes time to develop, but today’s digital world is all about speed, and gathering a lot of information quickly.

Wolf is concerned about how children’s brains will respond if early reading is done online.  Will their brains cut off the normal reading pathways that lead to deeper reading?  Will it impact their ability to reflect on the information they are reading?

Wolf believes these questions need to be studied, and thinks children will need instruction designed at developing reading comprehension in the digital world.

According to some research, the brain can benefit from using the Internet.

Mizuko Ito, of the University of California, led a large study that concluded that teens learn valuable social skills for the digital age by sending instant messages, and doing other communication through digital means.

Rowe, the 19-year-old, said he and his friends “spend a lot of time on the computer and still have totally normal and perfect social lives.”  Although he admitted that they often debate about whether technology makes people socially inept.

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