by Stephanie Partridge
Technology is the proverbial dual edged sword. On the one hand, it makes our lives so much easier by connecting us with information from a variety of places without requiring us to leave our homes. It connects us with people who are across the world and makes communication almost instantaneous. On the other hand, it separates us from other humans and we can easily find ourselves isolated from real life human contact. It can promote a sedentary lifestyle and even take the place of books. But there are hidden dangers to extended computer use that most parents aren't even aware of and it is impacting their own children and teenagers.
Recent statistics, coming from several different studies, show teens are spending anywhere from 11 hours a month online to 33 hours a month. Social networks have overtaken email by just a hair, while texting is a preferred mode of communication. Bottom line, teens are spending a lot of time on the computer and this concerns Dr. Jennifer Austin Leigh, or "Dr. Jenn."
Dr. Jenn is the founder and CEO of Honor the Gril LLC, an organization that is designed to teach compassionate parenting skills to mothers, enabling them to be more effective in raising their daughters. With a doctorate in psychology and mother of four, Dr. Jenn has a private practice in New York and has authored several books aimed at helping teen girls navigate the often confusing, scary waters of boys, relationships and growing up. Her website, http://www.parentingteengirls.com, offers practical, sound advice to both parents and teens. One of her greatest concerns is the amount of time teens are spending on the computer – and the impact that it is having on them.
"There are both good and bad found in the use of social networking sites, "says Dr. Jenn. "The harm I am most concerned about is the 'dehumanizing' of people and the negative effects that it seems to be having on face to face relationships."
This "dehumanizing effect" is every bit as scary as it sounds. Research conducted and published by Stanford University, indicates that our brains are being not only affected, but actually altered as a result of frequent computer use. The human brain processes information differently when that information comes from a computer. This altered form of processing actually erodes the brain's hardwired ability to read the facial expressions of people. And there is grave danger that can come from this.
Reading facial expressions is a fundamental aspect of our social interactions. It guides us as we communicate with each other. But some folks seem to "check out" of the whole communication process. Instead of focusing on one thing, they are constantly skimming multiple sources of information. Researchers call this continuous partial attention, or CPA. Possessing the ability to accurately read facial expressions lays the foundation for empathy. It nurtures and enables the connections to occur between humans. CPA inhibits this and that is a problem.
The teen brain is immature. The human brain does not fully mature until the person is in their late twenties. Teenagers use a completely different area of their brains to read facial expressions, the limbic region. In the mature brain, the prefrontal cortex does the work. But because the teen brain is undeveloped and they are using the more primitive region of the brain, their ability to read facial expressions is already skewed. Most of the time they simply do not do it correctly. They are already misreading people and when this is combined with CPA, real trouble begins to brew.
Children need regular interaction with real humans, real children, not just images on a computer screen. So many of our children are living in a virtual world where email and instant messages take the place of face to face conversations. Text messaging is preferred over a telephone call. They are not exposed to voices, inflections in tone, facial expressions and body language. In short, our children are missing out on the great growth experiences that come from a real life connection with a three dimensional, real life person.
While social networks, email and the internet do help keep kids connected and exposes them to a vast amount of information, there are downsides in addition to causing CPA. Dr. Jenn explains,
"There are other problems with social networks such as too much information that teens share, ostracism, mean cruel remarks, increased bravado due to no immediate consequences to things that are written and a sense of 'its all about me!' Social networks are thought to be part of the ongoing trend that is creating the career desire 'to be famous.' A few years ago research showed teens said they wanted to be pilots or doctors, now the majority claim they want to be 'famous' but don't specify for what. Social networks give our teens a chance to star in their own lives, so to speak, on line. They create their own reality shows! Not the best thing for a teen to be doing. More and more outrageous behavior is needed to keep people's attention and the spotlight."
Facebook alone garners more than one billion seconds a day as people log on and enter a virtual world that is much easier to control – but less healthy if not balanced with regular face to face interaction and other activities that engaged different areas of the brain.
"Also, social networks keep our kids from doing what would really help their brain growth…… PLAY!" Says Dr. Jenn, "Yes, play grows the brain in healthy ways!!"
So, what can parents do? In my home, I have set limits on how much time my teens can spend on the computer. We don't really have much of a problem, but I raised my kids with a strong emphasis placed on reading books, visiting the library, spending time with friends, pursuing creative endeavors such as music, writing and art and talking together as a family. We do not watch television. In fact, we don't even have cable. We watch DVDs (very, very little beyond a PG-13), cook together and play board games like Outburst, Scattergories and Diploma Dogs.
If your child is already hooked on the computer and social networks, it may be a little more difficult to wean him or her off, but it isn't impossible. The thing to remember is when you take them off of the computer, fill that space of time with something constructive and positive like doing something with a friend, doing something with you, reading a book or doing something creative. Take that time as an opportunity to engage them and enrich them. You can turn it around.
Stephanie Partridge is a freelance writer and photographer as well as a FOIA analyst for a federal agency in Washington, D.C. She is a single mom to Jeffery, 19; Micah Elizabeth, 17 and Benjamin, 15. She is also the author of the ebook, “Diet is a Dirty Word.”
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