The Kids Are Not Alright

07Dec08

(apologies to The Who)….I wonder about the effects of extensive time we spend web surfing, video gaming, and other online behaviour. Two incidents around me touched off more questions than provided answers. I bumped into  mother of a 14 year old who said she worried about her son’s generation, and what growing up digital means. She sees him having problems with face-to-face social interactions. On a personal level, I will be offline next week without access to internet, and I will feel the effects of internet withdrawl. For example, if I need to find a restaurant, we go to Google maps, but if need the same information I will have to pull out a Yellow Pages telephone directory. I will be frustrated and feel as if I am missing out on something. But am I really?

Dr. Gary Small, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, compared brain activity of intensive Internet users and naive users as both groups conduced basic Web searches. The intensive spent a lot of time on online and naive spent almost none (I don’t know number of hours logged online). The intensive group had a lot of activity in the dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. This area is associated with decisionmaking, integrating complex information, and short term memory. The naive group was quiet in the same area. By day 5 in the experiment, the naive group had gone from zero activity to a plenty of action in the dorsolateral area, matching the intensive group. The intensive group’s reading had maintained the same level of activity. (Dumbed down by Lianne George, Maclean’s, November 27, 2008) What surprised Small was that, in just 5 hours, the brain could be rewiring and changing already.

Some potential pitfalls of less developed brain “stuck” in adolescent development are the lack of empathy skills, and complex reasoning skills. Small also suggested that an underdeveloped brain may show effects in inability to learn, and  inabililty to control impluses, inability to remember long term. There are other insights in the Maclean’s article that made me wonder about how my behaviour is changing, as the world is more wired.

I don’t advocate becoming a Luddite and shunning all Internet, video gaming and other online activity. But striking a balance or some down time away from our beloved technologies will feed our brain and possibly enrich our lives. Talking to a friend, sharing a story, listening to music, or reading a novel will enourage us to step outside our little virtual worlds.  When I take a break from shuffling through my iPod collection of songs, I can take the chance to experience music in a live setting, watch musicians coaxing harmony and melody from their instruments, or feel emotions stirring from within as a visceral reaction to the total experience. And by talking about our lives and experiences informally, that can spill into our professional lives to make us more effective narrators and communicators. Maybe our online time is depriving us a satisfying and rich life, instead of leading us to one.

-Brenda

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