Meg Daley Olmert

Meg Daley Olmert

Made For Each Other

Social Notwork?

When words fail us: Bonding in the time of texting.

Posted Feb 08, 2011

NIH primatologist, Steve Suomi has been studying the behavioral and neurochemical effects of maternal care in monkeys for over 30 years. In studies where he compared the social behaviors and stress chemistries of rhesus macaque babies who are raised either by their mothers or in a neonatal unit surrounded by other young monkeys (peer-raised) he found that the presence and protection of a mother, helped her young mature into calmer, more confident adolescents willing to explore new places and better at making social alliances. The peer-raised monkeys, however, spent most their time clinging to each other in what Dr. Suomi calls, "hyper-attachments," that turn out to be dysfunctional.

If you click on this link you can watch Dr. Suomi's lecture on all this and more. At 47:16 you will see a slide of these peer-raised monkeys clinging to each other

and hear Dr. Suomi explain that their compensatory clinging "gets in the way of other activities." They simply can't let go long enough to explore, play, or make new friendships.

I found myself wondering if Dr. Suomi had inadvertently created a primate model of today's kids who "virtually cling" to their peers via the internet? The majority of children are, after all, being raised by two working parents. The double income provides these children with the internet access that makes contact with their friends' more available than their parents'. And so they text and text and text. But, like our young monkey cousins, quantity text-time with peers looks to be just as inadequate at shaping the psychological and social wellbeing of our kids.

For millions of today's teenagers, psychologist Sherry Turkle says, "sharing a feeling has become part of having one." Perhaps we should not be surprised that by now sharing emotions and spilling secrets comes so naturally to the great grand-generation of the original virtual-confessor, Phil Donahue. But stream-of-consciousness texting looks a lot more compulsive than communicative. Is this need to constantly share feelings more like a nervous tick, a reflex arising from insecurity and a quest for intimacy? It's not just who our young people turn to for social validation, it's also the method of connection they now rely on to get this most important job done. They prefer texting to talking. For the sake of expediency, they sacrifice the inflection, tone, volume of the human voice-sensory information that has always signaled the sincerity and intention behind the words.

It is more than ironic that ever since we discovered we have a brain system that makes us social and calms us down, we've been speeding away from the things it thrives on. The brain chemistry that evolved to ensure that mothers would want to connect with their babies and to reward all of us for caring for each other requires something scientists call "non-noxious" sensory stimuli. It responds to the lullaby in a mother's voice, a baby's coos, warm touch. It's a very old, very brain-stem kind of wisdom that appreciates kind words, but trusts kind deeds a lot more. What can this sensory system discern from one or a thousand texts?

As we can see from Dr. Suomi's peer-raised monkeys, it doesn't appreciate bad social intel. And now we have a lot of evidence that says neither do we. In the last 100 years we in the West have deserted the agrarian lifestyle that informed our central nervous system-and that social network-for over 10,000 years. Nature deprivation was the first assault on our brain's social network. In leaving the farm, we left the kin and communities that "had our backs" for millennia. We spun off into nuclear families that too often are reduced to phoning it in. Whether or not our children will thrive on a steady diet of virtual peer-review is another one of the big questions Google can't answer.

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (Basic Books 2011).