I recently published a book (‘Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect’) about the ways that our brain has become increasingly social over the past 250 million years of mammalian evolution. My colleagues and I use tools like fMRI to reveal brain mechanisms that motivate us to be social and provide us with tools to live well in social groups. As I’ve been giving talks about ‘Social’ the most common question I get is about all the time kids spends looking at screens rather instead of directly interacting with other people. People want to know if Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are ruining the next generation. Is the mere time these take away from traditional social interaction preventing our kids from learning how to be normal social beings? Here’s what I usually say:
Humans have always feared how some new technology, behavior, or trend would turn the minds of the next generation to mush. The ancient Greeks had a strong oral tradition—it was the mainstay of communication and education. The act of writing was seen as dangerous because it would allow a person to avoid committing information to memory and therefore make children’s brains less developed than they would have been otherwise. Almost every technology is greeted with the same fear without the doomsday predictions ever coming to fruition. Will more digital screen time ruin the brains of the next generation? No one knows, but I seriously doubt it.
Will more digital screen time change the minds, brains, and behaviors of the next generation? Probably. Technology always changes us in both good and bad ways and what counts as good or bad depends deeply on one’s perspective. The moderate separation that came with telephone use might have reduced learning of good face-to-face nonverbal communication. However, telephone use also gives just enough distance to allow romantic couples to communicate more openly and emotionally, in ways that are sometimes hard in person. I can think of ways in which this was both good and bad in my childhood. I suspect that when the next generation writes the history of how digital media changed them there will be pluses and minuses. Facebook and Twitter allow us to communicate with so many more people at once. I’ve made so many interesting connections with people that never would have happened without the internet. On the other hand, digital media can become a diversion from other kinds of social interactions that are essential to our well-being. The next generation will have to figure out how to manage this and I bet they will, for the most part.
Our core social motivations to connect will always assert themselves, like a hunger that needs to be fed. They’ve been there for millions of years and aren’t going away anytime soon. Maybe these digital technologies will provide some sustenance for our social appetites, particularly during times of transition or travel. But if they aren’t enough, people will turn to other ways of connecting—maybe traditional and maybe some even more technological (e.g. virtual reality or holographic chatting?). We don’t know how this will play out, but these changes have always happened and our social motivations continue to be tended to, even if awkwardly at times.
Finally, we all tend to have rose-colored rear view mirrors when we look back on our own past. “When I was a kid, we had lots of face to face interaction and we really learned how to communicate.” Really? Sure, we did some of that. I remember lots of kids being socially awkward and uncomfortable. Maybe it took a different form for adolescents then and now, but we were not social superstars. And while our screens were different, we spent more time looking at them than real people too. Between TV and video games, we were more likely to sit next to a person looking at a screen than look at a person and have a meaningful conversation. Adolescence is hard and technologies have always provided some way to cope with this difficulty.
And frankly, when I look back at depictions of social interactions from the 19th century, when none of this technology was “getting in the way,” it usually seems far more awkward and restrained. Maybe technology has actually helped us understand each other better and get more information about what motivates us and other people. But then again, no one knows.