On a rainy day, I was sitting in a shopping mall people-watching. About 75% of the folks between the ages of 13 and 25 were either texting or talking on their phone as they were walking – even if they were with a group.
Being a teen is all about connecting with friends and social media is the perfect channel to do that. In fact, the average teen in America texts nearly 1,500 times a month and 15,000/month is not unheard of (that’s 500 messages per day!)
Clearly, screen-based stimulation has become the primary source of socialization and entertainment among teens and increasingly younger children. Just a few generations ago, the vast majority of a child’s time was playing with friends in the dirt, kicking a ball or playing “house” (or if you go way back, I guess they played “cave.”) What’s the impact of the “highly-wired child” in our new world?
The social media brain
An individual’s neural framework is nearly set by the time they are 15 years old. Everything a child experiences forms neural pathways, and the most-used pathways become aspects of their personality and the foundation of how they interact as adults. Before the days of screen-based entertainment (most of human history!), the strongest pathways were naturally formed by intense socialization with family members and friends, physical activity and interacting with nature in some way.
With so many children spending MOST of their time in front of keyboards and flashing screen, I began to think about this impact on their development and on society. Wouldn’t personality development in the digital age have to be fundamentally, drastically and permanently different?
A disregard for consequence
confirms this. A professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College (U.K.) claims social network sites risk infantilizing the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize, and a shaky sense of identity.
Professor Lady Greenfield said the rapid-fire reward of video games and text messaging could be a cause of the three-fold rise in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) over the past 10 years.
She warned against “a marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content, or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity — a disregard for consequence — can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.
“The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction, Greenwood said. “So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”
A new way of relating
For teens already struggling with insecurity, social networking can provide a constant reassurance that they are listened to, recognized, and valued. That can be a good thing unless there is no balance with other life skills such as learning to interpret non-verbal behaviors, holding a conversation, and dealing with conflict when you don’t have the time to think up a witty text message.
Free, instantaneous, global communication is creating a generation who will recoil at the thought of three-dimensional conversations, whose social identity and self-esteem will be validated by flashing messages on a computer or cellphone screen. The sanitized, detached world of social media has become the norm, and will reach even younger children with new innovations that avoid live interactions.
While this sounds depressing, follow the logic through to its conclusion. Social media is not going away … quite the opposite. So in the ADD world of our future, those who grew up as digital natives of the Facebook society should have an ADVANTAGE over those who were sheltered. Can you imagine a world where an articulate, well-spoken, well-read individual is the social outcast? If you’re under 20, it’s here.
Life was so much simpler when I was playing in the dirt.