Digital Pandemic

Hidden cyber age dangers

HERE COME THE SKIMMERS. OUR CYBER FUTURE?

Can we learn by skimming?

Skim: "To remove the best or most easily obtainable contents from something. To read, study, or examine superficially and rapidly." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition).

How to describe today's youth? Many have coined the term Cyber Native and others call them the "I" generation. I like SKIMMERS because it best describes how they function on a day-to-day basis. When kids today have over a thousand "friends" on Facebook and are exposed to almost 12 hours per day of media (not including schoolwork on their computers or media exposure at school), what it there to do but SKIM - in order to stay afloat? Yes, SKIMMERS.

But let's not start with technology. Let's start with human development as we know it. First, we need basic trust. This evolves from early physical contact and emotional support. Too many children today are sent to daycare where daycare workers fear physical contact because a lawyer may exorcise "repressed" memories of physical or sexual abuse now - or 20 years from now. At daycare, kids are exposed to lots of computers and media before going home at night - to yet more computers and media, including TV and electronic games. So where's the physical and emotional support?

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In addition to emotional development, kids need intellectual development. They need to learn reading comprehension (not word-calling), mathematics and other basic skills. Their innate ability needs to be drawn out over time by dedicated teachers using best teaching methods that have proved successful in developing learning skills, including memory, organization, writing and verbal fluency.

We've already seen that electronic games do nothing to develop the all-important frontal lobes of the brain. Rather, the brain is being rewired to master narrow visual and fine-motor skill. This may prepare our SKIMMERS to skim along the assembly line, sorting buttons - but little else. Meanwhile, we've seen an increase in concentration problems and less imagination and creativity.

We all need a positive and solid self-concept. We get this from our "my," "me," and "mine" face-to-face experiences with parents, peers and role models. We need to have clear boundaries between our private selves, our social selves and our public selves. Now these necessary lines of demarcation are breaking down. On social sites, people report more private information than they should, while sharing less emotionally.

One third of American teenagers send 100 or more text messages per day, and they are becoming less interested in face-to-face communications with their peers. Without face-to-face interaction, how will they learn right-hemisphere skills such as poise and emotional expression? Even kindergartners prefer to play side by side on laptops during play dates. Gary Small at UCLA reports that "Digital Natives (who I'm calling SKIMMERS) are already having a harder time reading social cues." 1.

Kids need a balance between left-brain and right-brain abilities. Imagine a human with no right brain abilities; no empathy, no emotion, no intuition, no art, no humor, no creativity and no people skills. We wouldn't have a human, would we? But we would have a robot, because the remaining left-brain abilities are those found in the SKIMMER and in the computer and the robot; information gathering, sequential logic, and mechanistic analysis of detail at the expense of the big picture.

Let's go back to our definition of skimming and SKIMMERS. That definition can include finding the best information. Will our SKIMMERS be up to choosing the very best? I don't think so. Where would they learn how to prioritize after a lifetime of skimming across an ocean of random currents in a mechanical boat without a map, a captain - or a paddle?

I'm going to do something now that will make Gaderian, the cyber robot, squeak with displeasure. He can't really feel emotion because he's made of metal and plastic, but if this total left-brain SKIMMER were able to feel, this next bit would cause him to break out in a rash. I'm going to call in a right-hemisphere human type by the name of Garrison Keillor, who doesn't know what skimming means and who thinks many young men today have the personalities of "warehouse security guards." He suspects the prevalence of texting is making them inarticulate. And he thinks the right-brain art of small talk is an essential step in mastering communications.

"Put down that cell phone, good sir, and look me in the eye and tell me something. How are you? Good. I like those tattoos. And the big safety pin in your ear. You from here? No? You're from Oklahoma? Really? Where the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain? Cool. Awesome. Totally."2.

 

1. Gary Small, iBrain. New York: William Morrow (2008).
2. Garrison Keillor. "Sullen, Silent Types." St. Petersburg Times (24 Apr 2010).

 

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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