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Social Networking and Kids: Yes? No? Maybe?


It’s been an up and down week for the social networking phenomenon. Websites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are still ruling the lives of many Internet users, but commentators and researchers have highly varied reviews as to how these services may (or may not) be affecting our lives.


Just today (February 25, 2009) as I began to write this article, ZDNet commentator Ollie Ross posted an article indicating her belief that an increasing number of corporations are giving in to the craze with the belief that employees may actually get something done through their Facebook ramblings – which means it may not be a craze after all, but an actual communications evolution.


But while corporations might be taking the locks off their Facebook blocking mechanisms (better check to see if your boss is part of this leading edge before you begin commenting on the cute cat pictures your friend just posted), does that necessarily mean parents should be embracing the movement? Two researchers on both sides of the Atlantic are saying moms and dads should be cautious.


Yesterday The Guardian, a UK publication, posted a story about researcher Lady Greenfield, who is a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She told Britain’s House of Lords that children’s experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”


Those are far reaching conclusions, yet they almost echo the statements made by Dr. Gary Small in late 2008. Small, a neurologist at UCLA and director of the university’s Memory & Aging Center, released a book titled iBrain in which he warns of the dangers of letting our children (to whom he refers to as “Digital Natives”) immerse themselves in an over-stimulated, multitasking world.


“Digital Natives tend to have shorter attention spans, especially when faced with traditional forms of learning ... ironically, it’s the younger minds that not only are the most vulnerable to the brain-altering influence of new technology but also are the most exposed to it.” (From iBrain by Garry Small and Gigi Vorgan, p. 25.)


Like Greenfield’s ascertains, later in his book, Small also claims his research indicates teens may be permanently altering their brains, preventing frontal lobes from developing which, in turn, leads to their inability to feel empathy for others.


(To be fair, over the course of his book, Small doesn’t just target social networking services, but has concerns about media use by young people in general – especially when they spend hours each day in an environment where their brains are trying to focus on homework, a chat session, viewing videos on YouTube and listening to music... all at the same time!)


Since Lady Greenfield released her remarks, commentators across the Internet have weighed in with their disbelief. Even journalists at major papers can barely hide their bias behind headlines like the Chicago Tribune’s: “Is Facebook giving us baby brains? British scientist says yes”.


While I’m not suggesting we should put social networking websites into the same category as tobacco products, it is important to recognize that this may be more than a passing fad. And, like those companies who are choosing to allow employees to use these new communication tools, we may all be communicating more frequently using these new methods. For adults, Dr. Small says learning new technologies can actually be good for us. However, substituting a keyboard for face-to-face interactions may not be so wise for a child.


The power of Facebook in my home was demonstrated just this past week when a friend of one of my children disappeared. After a day of searching and calling cell phones and other friend’s homes, my own son came home from school and immediately knew what to do: Post a message on Facebook. Within minutes, our phone rang with the wayward teen on the other end.


I still have mixed feelings about the role these new technologies play in my own life as well as my children’s. I started a Facebook page with the sole purpose of becoming “friends” with my own kids, so I could see what they were up to. In time, I have connected with many of my own estranged acquaintances and the results have been very fun. On the other hand, my wife and I have had to limit Facebook time with our children, who often succumb to the endless passing of messages and view photos as opposed to doing homework and having “real” interactions with friends.


Perhaps the one consolation is sociologists have been wondering about the nature of human relationships for far longer than we have had social networking services or even the Internet. In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand Tönnies, a German Sociologist, was concerned the new industrialized and urbanized societies would lead to the end of community relationships characterized by intimacy and durability and be replaced by more fleeting and impersonal acquaintances.


From an adult perspective, I would say we have far more stress factors keeping us from building strong relationships than something like Facebook. However, we shouldn’t forget how important it is to help our children build positive social behaviors while they are young and we need to ensure these new technologies are not being used to excess.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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