What is Facebook doing to our children’s brain?
OMG! when I saw this sentence on a magazine, I had to rub my eyes!
Sean -the inventor of Napster, co-founder of Facebook and involved in the social media world since his teenage, nowadays billionaire and committed to several philanthropic institutions and projects– revealed his concerns about the impact of social media on children’s brain and the “unintended consequences” on individuals and social life, after the giant digital platform grew over 2.3 billion people, nearly a third of the entire world population!
In the last few years it has in fact emerged a row of concerns about a direct relation between mental health issues in children, teenagers and vulnerable people and the overuse of social media and video games. Even if I heard of those problems in the past, my surprise was that one of the inventors of social media was honestly declaring that there are not only benefits in his digital creatures as it has always been advertised.
At the beginning of the social era -which started less than 20 years ago- we were told that on the social media we could express ourself freely without many restrictions or boundaries; we could share information with colleagues easily and quickly; we could expand our network of friends and find new connections at ease, just one click friendship; we could support our friends from the distance or share ideas, events and results of our work; we could learn opinions and points of view of other people, understanding one other better than ever before, thus improving knowledge and democracy.
While the benefits of social media have been well advertised, their drawbacks were almost expressed by limited circles of sensible people, especially psychologists and educators who first experienced in teenagers and children lack of concentration, diminished capability to memorise, less readiness to carry out their work.
While I was investigating further the contents of Sean Parker’s interview, one more surprising declaration came to my ears from an event in the UK last January.
In a visit to Harlow College, Tim Cook, Ceo of Apple, told the students:
“I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network… I don’t believe in overuse [of technology]… There are still concepts that you want to talk about and understand. In a course on literature, do I think you should use technology a lot? Probably not.”
What Tim Cook and Sean Parker said, shows that awareness is to grow about the negative effects of an overuse and misuse of technology. Special attention of course should be paid to the effects on vulnerable people: “Children first”, we should call out.
Facebook has nowadays become such a ginormous digital ‘community’ that -according to Sean Parker- “… it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” (Sean Parker’s interview at axios.com). The same could be said about Google, Snapchat, Instagram and all of those inventions…
How do we relate to technology?
Before venturing into the exploration of the effects that social networks have on individuals (which is the focus of this article) and society, let me say that my position is away from ideological controversies between those who consider technology the devil of modern times and those who regard technology like the god of our lives.
Neither one nor the other in my opinion, but the task for everyone to rise awareness about technology and its use.
Technology is a product of human mind and its use depends from human hands. It is up to me -human being- to switch devices on or off, it is me clicking on one key or the other.
We need to take personal responsibility on the use of a machine that we -Humans- have constructed.
When you get to know technology, you may discover that there are no mysteries in it: everyone can understand how to make it, how it works and how to develop it.
Technology may provide positive effects (see medicine, transports, communications for example) but also generate negative consequences, even if unintended.
If we want really to win the challenges of our time and lead our technological civilisation to good ends -perhaps to a “humanised technology”-, we need to dive into its core or -let me say with some fantasy- slide into the ‘tummy of the dragon’ and see what is in there.
So, hands-on and get into the darkness…
What is the peculiarity of the current technology?
The old machines -before the digital world penetrated into our daily life- were affecting our relation with the physical world and only indirectly affected our psyche.
The present high-tech machines are directly related to the highest faculties of a human being. Our devices do not need only electricity. Their essential fuel is human energy. Technology indeed requires our mental, psychological, sensorial energy, whether we are IT engineers or simple end-users.
We should be aware of this reality: when we proudly play with our ultimate smartphones, tablets or laptops, we give the machines the opportunity to bite our human energy including our physical brain’s cells!
In other words: every day, technology demands new fresh fuel from human beings and needs to consume it. When we read -in myths and children stories- that “time by time a dragon required a young girl”, is it not a creative image of the modern technology and its algorithms, dominating and ruling our global village?
- We all know how addicting is one of those little smartphones when we are attached to our favourite social network waiting for a “like” as if it were an invitation to the “prince’s ball” or playing on a favourite video-game to verify our ‘potential’, don’t we?
When we use technology in this way, we get addicted, no doubt.
Addiction to social networks relies on human vulnerabilities, on our psyche’s weak points, the two most relevant in this context being narcissism on one hand -that leads to euphoria– and self-deprecation on the opposite hand, that leads into depression.
The heavy use of social media boost both those vulnerabilities opening the ground for growing anxiety and pervasive presence of the digital environment in our daily life where everything and everyone can be reached at easy and where the challenge of looking into one other’s eyes and speaking to one other’s heart is simply annihilated, it is not planned to be part of the game…
Addiction though is only the start point of the danger and the solid background over which more serious damages may occur.
- Alongside with addiction, depression, narcissism, anxiety -as mentioned- also aggressive and antisocial behaviours have been found in a direct connection with the time of exposure to social media: the higher is the time of exposure, the higher are the damages recorded in tested people.
- A third phenomenon is cyberbullying, that has become one of the most horrible actions carried out via social networks, affecting vulnerable people. In fact the influence of bad comments from ‘friends’ or unknown followers or the display in public of private photos and videos may determine the bullied person to take serious self-harmful decisions up to fatal actions as it has happened to several cases in recent months. So, if you are bullied on Facebook or other social media, say NO, switch off and seek advice.
- Furthermore, while surfing the internet, our habits are tracked by social companies in order to target us for advertising purposes: this is also a powerful tool that aims to influence our choices and control our purchasing behaviour. Vulnerable people -again children, teenagers and certain types of adults- are induced to buy products related to their age or personal preferences, almost believing that they have been helped to make their choice by the tracking companies…
- Finally let me mention the risk of connecting unknown people, strangers who might manipulate the intention and will of children and teens, even from the distance.
Brain’s grey matter shrinks under the abuse of social media!
So, if you parent or educators have tried until now to avoid the hassle to take responsibility for limiting the overuse of social media, consider now this latest finding of the experts: [quote Text=”when social media are used massively, a shrinkage of certain areas of our brain’s grey matter occurs!“]
This process is pretty similar to the brain’s shrinkage due to ageing but instead of years it takes hours! It is what I define an “anaesthetising effect“, expression perhaps not scientifically correct but giving a clear idea of the process that leads our brains to become mummified instead of lively and creative!
In particular, it seems that the memory and ‘reward circuit’ of the brain are affected by the overuse of social media, causing a decrease of happiness and an increase of anxiety and sadness.
With memory and happiness, it is likely to shrink our divergent thinking, reducing the capability to face challenges, solve problems and take initiatives.
Keeping healthy and happy!
In the same interview Sean Parker reveals that “the inventors of social networks understood consciously that they were exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”… but the growth of a social network like Facebook over 2 billion users has caused “unintended consequences”! (read the full interview at axios.com)
I guess that imagination, creativity, thinking and that special activity of “dreaming” that enables children and teenagers to shape their future with phantasy and inspiration, all those human peculiarities risk to be atrophied by the current high usage of social network and more in general by an overuse of technology.
What can we do then to tackle and reduce those negative aspects of the present life-style? What behaviour is most effective to the aim we want to achieve, especially in education?
The “electronic fast”
Some psychologists wisely encourage parents to consider a period of “electronic fast”, just like in a healthy diet there is a fasting from junk food in certain times of the year.
According to some experts, the electronic fast -which may be carried out by all the members of a family or a community- produces quite positive effects varying from better compliance (e.g. when being told to do a chore or get ready for bed) to smoother homework time (more gets done with fewer complains and tantrums); from improved attention, reading and math skills to better quality sleep, more tolerance, fewer meltdowns, less irritability and agitation.
More initiatives though need to be considered and combined to one other.
It is in fact essential that children in their early years and during their childhood receive a healthy protection from a premature exposure to technology.
It is equally fundamental that -in addition to protection- our children receive a rich feed of creativity and constant encouragement to do more movement in their daily life.
Arts and crafts, drama, music, dances, even baking and cooking and all the creative and sport activities should be included in every schools and colleges, giving to creative and music departments with the same importance of other traditional disciplines such as language, maths, sciences. If we believe that this statement is valid, then the adequate financial and human resources should be allocated to develop the Arts and Music departments in schools and colleges, perhaps even at universities!
In a previous post, I quoted Sir Ken Robinson:
“We have to think of the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children” he said in his talk “Changing education paradigms” published on YouTube (I strongly recommend to watch the video here)
“Changing education paradigms” is also the commitment of Steiner/Waldorf education that almost a century ago began to promote the harmonious development of a child by considering cognition, creativity and willingness as all qualities that have to be nourished as appropriate in each age and stage of development.
In a small scale the same holistic principle inspires the Active English Learning project and all its programmes, aiming to provide language improvement and feed a ‘human-centred’ development.