Sometimes I like to observe human behavior. I find it kind of fun watching what other people do and how they behave. But I am also a bit weird.
One thing I’ve noticed quite recently is that it doesn’t seem to matter what people are doing, travelling on public transport, going to the pub, sitting having a meal or enjoying time with friends, everybody is totally preoccupied with their smartphones.
They’re looking at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, video games, emails, listening to music or just surfing the net. Clearly all of these smartphones, provide endless distraction and entertainment.
But what are these devices doing for human interaction? Because it means people are not talking to each other.
They are not verbally sharing opinions, discussing ideas or having a debate.
They have stopped communicating with human beings and replaced them with a machine.
Here is a question that is too obvious, but I’ll ask it anyway. Is this a good thing? Could it be affecting how we think?
A British neuroscientist called Baroness Susan Greenfield doesn’t think this is a good thing at all. She also says it’s affecting our brains.
Now I am going to add a disclaimer.
I am not endorsing Susan Greenfield or her neuroscience. In fact a number of her peers think she espouses a load of old rubbish. The London Guardian newspaper described a book she wrote as a “poorly researched diatribe.”
But what I do think is that what she is saying is worth a discussion. So let’s have one.
Susan Greenfield says modern technology is changing the wiring in our brains. For example she says a lot of people equate Facebook friends in the same way that they might regard a close friend they have known all of their life.
She says social media gives us opportunities to share, connect and present points of view. But it takes away real human empathy. In fact she says the 21st Century human mindset seems to be characterised by short attention span, sensationalism, and making the mistake of equating information given to us by search engines with real knowledge and wisdom.
Greenfield says the human brain is perfectly designed to adapt to its environment. And because technology creates a vastly changed social environment, it must follow that our brains may also be changing in an unprecedented way.
Here is something that she says that is definitely out there but interesting.
Greenfield argues that young people are developing in a world where relationships are being made and lost online. That means they never get the chance to rehearse important social skills. For example, when people normally meet someone they have in interest in getting to know, they want to talk about themselves, and nature has given us body language cues so that our interactions keep us reasonably safe and secure and we don’t make fools of ourselves, generally speaking.
But words, the primary source of communication in social media networks comprise only ten percent of the impact we have on people when we meet them. As a result, young people are more likely to behave inappropriately and insult each other on line because they don’t have those visual clues as a point of reference. If they tell someone they hate them to their face they are unlikely to repeat it because they can see the offence and the hurt it can cause. But people interacting on social media don’t have that handbrake. I am not saying I agree with this but it’s interesting.
Before we had the internet, a young person who might have been bullied at school had an escape when they went home. But with social media and smartphones the bullying follows you everywhere and can be unrelenting 24/7.
Greenfield claims there is scientific data to show that when young people were deprived of access to smartphones even for just five days their interpersonal skills improved.
Our connectedness to social media means we spend less time thinking and reflecting and more time reacting. She says if young people switched off their devices they would have a stronger sense of personal identity instead of one that is constantly defined by the approval of others.
It doesn’t mean being anti-technology but it does mean acknowledging there is more to life than looking at a smartphone, a tablet or a computer screen.
On that point I agree with her.