Large numbers of Millennials embrace social media and electronic devices exposing them to risks not faced by earlier generations. After decades of unwarranted suspicion of electronic technologies, researchers are detecting problems than include feeling over-exposed, overwhelmed, and poorly focused (1). Productivity and creativity likely suffer.
Truly creative people often have a strong need for privacy. Many are introverts which is another way of saying that they are easily over-stimulated.
Most creative endeavors take a lot of time. Those who spend much of their waking lives on electronic media cannot accomplish much creatively because they lack the free time to contemplate the world and to try out new ideas.
These are ancient ideas: Plato wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living and Aristotle pointed out that leisure is essential for cultivating the mind. Both would likely have been appalled by social media. Yet, their thoughts on this issue may be irrelevant. After all, the degree of contemplation, and opportunity for leisure, that they promoted may be impossible today.
Can privacy make a comeback?
Even if people were not involved in social media, modern life subjects us to endless electronic exposure thanks to burglar alarms, cell phones, credit cards, facial identification software, online tracking by marketers, body scanners, surveillance drones, fingerprint recognition systems, and so forth.
Can privacy make a comeback in the face of such a formidable electronic arsenal that a person traveling to work in the morning can be recorded on a score of different electronic devices - from store security to cameras at stop lights - even without using their own.
Being endlessly wired to electronic devices and social media is harmful. Researchers are starting to get a handle on what electronic “addiction” does to the brain and the news is not good.
Your brain on Twitter
Everyone now knows that texting while driving increases the risk of car accidents by a factor of 20 plus. This is no surprise to psychologists who know that it is difficult to pay attention to two tasks simultaneously. Besides, driving without looking was never a good idea.
One might imagine that people who are accustomed to following events through three different electronic media at the same time (e.g., watching TV while on Facebook and texting friends) would be rather good at switching their attention back from cell phone screen to the road. They are not (1). Evidently the electronic world is more compelling than the road. Interestingly the more devoted a person is to multiple devices, the worse their capacity to multi-task. The same is likely true of following multiple events on split screens.
Multiple media use creates the illusion of mastery over all the important information in their world. Unfortunately, the brain gets befuddled by electronic addiction impeding productive work and likely impairing creativity.
People who are accustomed to electronic multi-tasking experience numerous cognitive deficits analogous to those for chemical dependency (1):
- They have poor focus and are distractible.
- They are bad at filtering out trivial background information.
- They find it difficult or impossible to turn off all of their electronic devices.
- They are irritable, or have trouble managing their emotions.
Perhaps the most intriguing conclusion is that even when electronic addicts go cold turkey, they do not regain “normal” cognitive function. Indeed, it may require months of retraining to restore the capacity to concentrate (1).
Worries about new media are often overdone. TV used to blamed for poor educational outcomes even though it likely contributed to academic achievement (2). In the past, most young brains were arguably under stimulated so that any new technology was enriching and enhanced learning ability.
Research on electronic addiction suggests that the human brain has finally met its match. It is swamped by too much information. Perhaps it is time to pull the plug so that the brain can recuperate. Perhaps privacy, and creativity, can make a comeback.
1. Nass, C. (2012). The man who lied to his laptop. New York: Current Trade.
2. Barber, N. (2006). Is the effect of national wealth on academic achievement mediated by mass media and computers? Cross-Cultural Research, 40, 130-151.