Author disclaimer: This blog entry is not intended as an academic research article; the opinions stated here are my own. They are the front-line observations of a mental health clinician, and professor, who has worked with hundreds of teenagers over the last decade. In addition, I need to point out that my comments are intended to describe "the hump of the bell curve." Obviously, there are teenagers out there who are wonderful and exceptional and have not succumbed to virtual catatonia.
They're young, plugged in, and tuned out. Alone and isolated with thousands of virtual "friends." They have the totality of human knowledge at their fingertips, yet they use the internet to post YouTube videos of flaming flatulence. They're globally connected yet perpetually distracted, self-absorbed rather than self-reflective. Apathetic and cynical, they're not interesting nor are they interested.
Welcome to Generation V.
Yeah, I know...people always tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses: "Things were better when I was a kid" is a common cry of every generation. Only in this case, things were better--at least when it comes to teens.
We can blame this adolescent malaise on (pick your favorite): the breakdown of the nuclear family; the odious and enabling "self-esteem movement" imposed by what I call "the Psychotherapeutic Industrial Complex;" the values-void in the Public Educational system; immigration policies that have led to undocumented workers taking the jobs that had, for generations, been the milieu of the teenager (landscaping, restaurant work, day-laborers, etc.).
And, yes, technology; the impact of what visionary educator Joseph Chilton Pearce calls "high-impact stimulation" on the developing brains of young people. What have all the bright flashing screens with vivid and graphic technicolor imagery done to Johnny's young-and-still-developing brain? We've all read about the negative attentional impacts, but what about more fundamental damage?
From my own clinical practice, I've worked with three teenagers in the past two years who have been psychiatrically hospitalized due to gaming-induced psychotic breaks and symptoms of "de-realization"--a loss of connection to reality that used to be associated with excessive hallucinogenic use. Now, it's too much World of Warcraft that can lead to Matrix-like "is this real?" delusions and hallucinations.
And what about the ubiquitous social networking? Ah, social networking; so many friends, yet most teens can't even make eye contact. Contrary to this unfortunately named phenomenon, there is nothing social about isolated, narcissistic, emotionally immature teens sitting zombified for hours in front of a faint-glowing computer screen.
Psychologist and author Jean Twenge has mined some of this territory in her books Generation Me (2007) and The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), as has Emory professor and author Mark Baurlein in his 2009 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
Technology has changed the entire equation. In the '70s, media critics decried TV violence on cop shows that seem positively quaint and Norman Rockwell-esque by today's Grand Theft Auto and Saw levels of graphic violence. So while I may have seen Kojak shoot "bang bang" a bad guy (without blood, no less!) when I was a kid, it was qualitatively different--both in intensity and pervasiveness--to the virtual violence that our teens are viewing today on oversized screens for hours on end.
This exposure to graphic and intense imagery isn't merely desensitizing us to violence; according to research, it's desensitizing us in general. Pearce cites a study done be German researchers at the University of Tubingen on over 4,000 subjects that showed that, since the proliferation of TV viewing in the late 1950s, people's sensory perception and general awareness has decreased by an average of 1 percent per year.
Pearce states: "Fifteen years ago people could distinguish 300,000 sounds; today many children can't go beyond 100,000...Twenty years ago the average subject could detect 350 shades of a particular color. Today, the number is 130." (Pearce, 2002)
Pearce goes on to cite the cross-cultural research on sensory registration done by child psychologist Marcia Mikulak in the 1980s. She discovered that children from so-called primitive, non-technological cultures (in parts of Brazil, Guatemala, and Africa) averaged levels of sensory sensitivity and conscious awareness of their surroundings that were 25 to 30 percent higher than those of the children from industrial and technological societies. Again, this significant sensory disparity between technological and non-technological children existed back in the 1980s--before the virtual explosion.
And before I get attacked by the tech devotees (I know, technology is a tool) it can be used for good but it can also be abused blah, blah, blah. It's kind of like the old PSA: "Guns don't kill people--people kill people!" Except in this case, we're giving these very dangerous and powerful tools to our youngest and most vulnerable.
So to be clear, I'm not so much opposed to technology as I'm opposed to age-inappropriate technology. I'm against blasting the senses of an infant with beeping and flashing imagery at a time when it's young, malleable and still-developing brain needs to be creating neural connections that come from creative play and active imagination. During this critical and pivotal neural developmental window, the worst thing that a parent can do is to plop baby in front of the boob-tube where it's passively stimulated by the rat-tat-tat imagery of Nickelodeon (and, later, graphic video games).
I'm against inundating a pre-teen's tenuous and fragile psyche with 72 inches of plasma and gaming overload so that I get asked "Dr. Kardaras, am I still in the game?" I'm opposed to giving tweens who haven't developed any sort of impulse-control or self-discipline the highly addicting instant-gratification reinforcers known as smart-phones so that they then become clinically compulsive texters.
In my facilitation of teen groups at the high school where I provide mental health services, I have seen addictive and compulsive texting increase every year with each new crop of incoming freshman. Seniors fidget nervously but seem to be able--with much coaxing--to put their phones away; the freshmen simply can't do it.
For the most significantly afflicted, there have been a number of Virtual Rehabs that have opened both in the U.S. and around the world where the primary course of treatment is un-plugging and an immersion in nature.
But perhaps most troubling of all when talking about technology's negative effect on teens is the fact that the most virtually addicted adolescents simply aren't engaged. They are not interested nor are they interesting. Where the young children of an earlier, pre-virtual generation may have developed a sense of wonder and awe about the world around them as they explored their environment (as Plato famously said, "All philosophy begins in wonder"), our Virtual Generation teens have grown up being perpetually (and passively) entertained and stimulated--from cradle to school.
Thus, the neural connections that form when infants problem solve, explore, create and play don't quite happen in the brain of the infant who simply stares at a screen. And, unfortunately, just as there are developmental windows for language acquisition, there are also developmental windows for attentional and cognitive development; by the time that Johnny gets to high school, if he's only been raised on a virtual diet, it may be too late. Johnny is now hard-wired towards inattentiveness and apathy that can lead to a life-long ennui.
The key is to stimulate reflective thinking and creativity as early as possible. And leave the technology on the shelf for the adults until Johnny is old enough--and his brain developed enough--to handle it.