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.
(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
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
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