What kind of person thinks that texting a friend in the same room is superior to speaking directly, face-to-face?

In a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, a novelist wrote that it makes perfect sense for teenagers to text each other even when they're at the same party, or sitting on the same couch. No one can overhear them and texting gives them time to frame their words more carefully. "We are still the same human beings we always were," he says, but the Internet has "freed us from the boundaries of distance and many of the risks of embarrassment in social interactions."

He recalls writing a 1985 sci-fi novel that showed how anonymous kids could use something like the Internet to pass for experts and influence public opinion. Now he supports the Internet (except for the Web's anonymity). "We blinked, and suddenly there are portals. There are these portals in our homes and offices that take us instantly to other people's homes and offices, to stores and libraries, to communities of every kind." He sees glowing advantages to the Internet with few reservations about its inherent dangers. 1

Are people who think this way really serious? There could be any number of underlying motivations, but it's probably nothing sinister. It's usually a well-meaning person with the following characteristics:

1. An adult.

2. An adult with a left-brain personality.

3. An adult who believes children are midget adults.

1. Adults can benefit from many technological advances (including the computer on which I am writing this article). Especially adults who did not grow up in the new world of technology. Adults whose brains were formed by reading good literature, playing outside, exposure to hands-on activities and direct and playful interaction with peers, along with communications with parents, teachers and other authority figures.

In The Digital Pandemic (Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age), I use the analogy of children limited to fast food dining. Eating exclusively at fast-food eateries from the age of 3 until the age of 20 or so would lead to consumption of high- calorie fatty foods, resulting in obesity, heart disease and a number of other physical problems. But adults who grew up with a balanced diet can take advantage of modern technology and visit the fast-food outlet for an occasional quick meal or sandwich.

2. The left brain. The Digital Pandemic gives examples of left-brain and right-brain personalities and behaviors. Left-brainers are often drawn to careers in writing and journalism. They are good with words and tend to be objective in their outlook. They understand objects in our world in terms of categories and concepts and believe there is an objective reality. They believe that words have fixed meanings and that other kinds of poetic, rhetorical or figurative language should be avoided. Speak objectively, they
say -- don't be ruled by emotion.

Right-brainers rely on their senses and intuition. They support ideas that are not always rational or objective, but include aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual awareness. Art, poetry, and play put us in touch with our feelings and intuitions. Imagination is highly valued.

Research shows that to be happy and productive we humans need to incorporate both left-brain and right-brain personalities and strategies. The left brain has been crowding out the right brain for some time now, and the massive influx of technology could create an even greater imbalance. As author Iain McGilchrist says "the left hemisphere, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as it ambles towards the abyss. Let's wake up before we free-fall into the void." 2

3. Kids are not midget adults.

And when you ignore the overwhelming evidence that children are not adults, you ignore the negative effects of learning and behavior on kids. You assume that because you, as an adult, are able to sort out the dangers inherent in something such as technology -- that children who are the same as you, just smaller, can do the same.

The Internet provides portals that some see as a marvelous opportunity for human enrichment because they take us to communities of every kind. Question: Are children ready to visit communities of every kind? In my 30 years of clinical practice, I've learned that children seek structure, support and guidance from parents and other authority figures. Overexposure (the Hurried Child Syndrome) overwhelms children. Overexposure scares the dickens out of kids! 3

If we believe kids don't exist as a separate group, then we also ignore research on children. The Kaiser family foundation has found that 56 percent of students from ages 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media while doing homework. When researchers had boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games or watching exciting movies like Star Trek, playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV. It also led to a significant decline in their ability to remember vocabulary words.4

Another study shows that the number of drivers involved in fatal accidents while eating, talking on the phone, or who are otherwise distracted, rose 42% from 2005 to 2008.5

I have one important question: When are these adults going to understand that children are not midget adults and that what benefits an adult may not benefit a child?

And finally, what about the notion that teenagers should text each other even when at the same party or sitting on the same couch, because then no one can overhear them and texting gives them the time to carefully frame their words and save themselves from embarrassment? As the title of The Wall Street Journal article indicates, the word friend has become a verb. To friend someone is not to be a friend, become a friend, or even to know that person well enough to be friendly.

To transmit left-brain bits of information from one left brain to another is not to communicate. Why? Because it leaves out the right-brain components of expression gesture, warmth and spontaneity. A friend, no. A robotic double, maybe.

Let's just say phony friends for phony people.

1. "How Friend Became a Verb." Orson Scott Card. The Wall Street Journal, Dec 15, 2010

2. The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Iain McGilchrist. Yale University Press, 2009.

3. Parent, Child and Community. Hicks, Goldstein and Pearson Nelson-Hall: Chicago. 1979

4. "Digital Distraction is Student Norm," St. Petersburg Times. Nov 21, 2010

5. New puzzle: "Why Fewer are Killed in Car Crashes" Joseph B White. Personal Journal. The Wall Street Journal Dec. 15, 2010

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