Neurologists and psychologists worry a lot today about the lack of face-to-face and voice-to-voice interaction that Web 2.0 enables. They point out that it is especially important for adolescents to have direct interaction with others because it is during the late teenage years and early twenties that the brain develops the ability to understand how others feel and how one’s actions may affect others around them. The underdeveloped frontal lobes of younger teenagers, explains Dr. Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center, lead teenagers to seek out situations that provide instant gratification. Younger teenagers tend to be self-absorbed. They also tend to lack mature judgment, are unable to understand danger in certain situations, and have trouble putting things in perspective.
One prevalent habit that impedes the normal development of the frontal lobes to the level of maturity one expects to see in adults by their mid-twenties is multitasking, says Dr. Small. The ability of multiple gadgets to allow young adults (and others) to listen to music, watch TV, email or text, and work on homework at the same time can lead to a superficial understanding of information. And all this technology feeds the desire for novelty and instant gratification, not complex thinking or deep learning. Abstract reasoning also remains undeveloped in such an environment.
High school senior Deval believes he can learn to have conversations by talking on the phone. But mastering the art of conversation is not the same kind learning as figuring out how to use the latest smartphone. Experts say it takes practice in listening to other people and learning how to read their faces and other gestures to fully understand what another person is feeling and saying. There are deeply intuitive aspects to learning how to fully converse with someone, what Gary Small calls the “empathetic neural circuitry” that is part of mature emotional intelligence. Researchers say it is too early to know how and if “Digital Natives,” those born after 1980 who have grown up using all kinds of digital devices as a natural part of the rhythm of their lives, will develop empathy at all and if they do develop it, how it might differ from what empathy means today.
What the experts do know is that the more hours spent in front of electronic screens can actually atrophy the neural circuitry that people develop to recognize and interpret nonverbal communication. And these skills are a significant part of what makes us human. Their mastery helps define personal and professional successes as well. Understanding general body language, reading facial expressions, and making eye contact are all part of the art of empathy. So in this age of superconnectivity, where communications are everywhere and we always on, we seem to risk losing many of the basic skills that are the hallmarks of effective communication itself.
Alone Together by Sherry Turkle
iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind by Gary Small MD and Gigi Vorgan