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Twitter may alter your child's brain

TwitterDigital media is rewiring our brains. This may be all right for adults who were brought up with long form material, but what effect will it have on our children for whom small chunks of information are all they know? Dr Mack Hicks reports.

When I discussed hidden dangers of digital media in my book, The Digital Pandemic: Re-establishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age, I focused primarily on process; not content. 

For example, parents are concerned about electronic game content but not about the process which is the amount of time spent. 

In young, vulnerable brains this can rewire the brain in the direction of routine and reflexive visual and fine-motor skills at the expense of integrated thinking. 

So, while parents are focusing on content, something else is going on. Important areas of the brain are not being used. “Use it or lose it.” 

By now you may be wondering why this article is written in small, choppy paragraphs. I’ll give the rationale for this style a little later on. 

Another hidden danger is stress. With 200 office emails per day and 24-7 access, the modern worker gets little time for solitude, reflection and “down time.” 

What will this do to our creative capacities and our internally-driven motivation? Will we even notice that we are becoming passive, mechanical and conventional? 

Again, this is an insidious process. Our first signal could very well be physiological, as our bodies’ rebel and our brains morph into multi-tasking “information snackers.” 

Okay. I will now own up to my chopped up writing style. These paragraphs approximate the length of a TWEET ––140 characters or less.

For you Digital Immigrants who had yet to receive an official tweet, you have now received nine of these beauties. For those who wanted to avoid them at all costs, I apologize. 

I thought I’d define the word process by having you experience it. While you were reading the content of these hit and run paragraphs, something else was going on. Your brain was being rewired. 

Something to worry about? No. Our brains are constantly rewiring in exposure to the environment, and this little exercise will leave no cortical scars. 

You won’t give up your smooth, sequential and integrated prose, but what if you were a young child with a vulnerable and highly plastic brain –– and this was all you did?

Between no stimulation of important frontal-lobe areas during basic electronic games and a 24-7 twitter social existence, you could grow up with unrealized intellectual abilities and expressive skills. 

Process. Is it a real concept or just psycho-babble? Now you know that it’s something you can feel, and sometimes not see. 

Teachers are noticing differences already. Kids seem to be losing their ability to imagine things. Is this because the electronic game, with it scintillating graphics, is doing the imagining for them? 

Twits make us feel important. They reinforce speed, impulsivity, impatience and weaken the ability to prioritize. 

A college professor in a February, 2010 PBS documentary, My Digital Life, written by Douglas Rushkoff and Rachel Dretzin, pointed out that only 6% of college freshmen have satisfactory writing skills. 

Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford said students now write in “little bursts and snippets,” with fewer big ideas. They write paragraphs, not essays. Write a paragraph and off to Facebook, write another paragraph and off to poker.” 

MIT students agreed. One student said: “I write a paragraph, awesome, I write another paragraph, awesome, a third paragraph, awesome –– but they don’t connect.” 

To really appreciate this phenomenon, we would need to mix these paragraphs and present them out of sequence. 

Amherst College hosted a “Day of Mindfulness” featuring Yoga and meditation and a lecture: “No Time to Think.” The students welcomed it. 

Anything positive about Twitter? Short bursts of information are helpful and even critical for reporters, emergency responders and other professions. 

Some advocates claim that information is more important than tone of voice. But shouldn’t the comparison be information with and without tone of voice? 

Right-brainers like Tweets, because these folks aren’t long on words. Left-brainers like them because of their literal, linear and objective style. 

Grandparents say texting gives them contact with their grandchildren. Otherwise they wouldn’t hear from them. But how does a 140-character message compare with a warm, wiggly, snuggle? 

It’s an inexpensive way to make contact. In 1830 it cost a full day’s earnings to send a letter within the same city. Would you pay that for a TWIT? Not likely. 

Ben Franklin’s sayings were within Twitter range: “Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?” 

It’s cheap and good for grandparents, and good for journalists and good for Ben Franklin, but is it good for kids? And is it good for thoughtful, educated adults? 

Digital_PandemicDr Mack Hicks holds a Master's degree and a PhD in clinical psychology as well as a BA in marketing and advertising. He founded the first school for dyslexic children in the UK in 1974. He is also founder and chairperson of the board of Lincoln Learning Labs, Inc., which operates 14 Centre Academy schools for children and adolescents who have special academic needs.  

Dr Hicks is the author of The Digital Pandemic: Re-establishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age. Published by New Horizon Press.




0 #1 Sue 2010-07-23 06:29
Very interesting, especially as it seems Twitter and Facebook have become so intrinsic to modern day communications (particularly for young people). I found the first paragraph thought provoking: "Digital media is rewiring our brains. This may be all right for adults who were brought up with long form material, but what effect will it have on our children for whom small chunks of information are all they know?" The implications are definitely worth pondering - how will social media and the digital age affect young people's brains in the long term?

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