Support for Parents, Educators & Mental Health Professionals
Teens and the Alluring Chemistry of the Digital World
August 7, 2014
Michael Simon was recently interviewed by Bustle.com for a piece on social media in general, and specifically about the impact with youth. Here's the interview in it's entirety.
Bustle: There are several studies that analyze the impact of social media on the human brain, i.e. information overload and short-term memory, technology robbing us of brain power, etc. How do you think we can best exercise our minds to combat such effects while still being part of a digital world?
Michael Simon: It's very hard to “opt out” of the digital world, because the digital world is more than just our interaction with digital media and devices. Our transactions as humans in the world right now are without a doubt being shaped by the dominant technologies, platforms and applications in the digital realm, just as we are busy shaping those technologies. I recently spent 20 hours on a plane, 3 hours on a train, and hiked 3 hours into a rain forest. As I sat listening to the sound of the rain—hoping I wouldn't get washed away—I caught a faint “whooshing” sound in the distance. Turn out it was another hiker, sending a text message. I think its crucial to get time away from computers and digital devices. We're starting to see things like “digital Shabbats” and other practices—not often, but sometimes driven by teens—that focus on getting chunks of time away from the constant tap on the shoulder that is part of living in the digital age. The idea seems quaint, but even dividing up the hour of the day into some segments, i.e., 45 minutes, in which you work online, text or interact with a digital device and 15 minutes of closing your eyes, walking outside or making eye contact with a kind other, can help mitigate some of the stress of constant interaction with digital media. Most studies show convincing evidence that despite what teens and adults think, neither group multi-tasks well. There is always a price to be paid if we're multi-tasking outside of one domain. What I mean is, if you're reading music, playing it, having it recorded and collaborating on writing a song, that's multi-tasking. But all the tasks are related to each other and we can do that pretty well. I'm talking about the kind of multi-tasking in which we're texting, watching television, “studying” a book or attending to an important task and carrying on an in-person conversation. We don't do all of those things particularly well when we do them all together. Amazing, but humans seem to have limits on bandwidth.
I think we also have to become better consumers of digital media by learning (and teaching our kids) what it really means to have “media literacy.” Part of the task of developing real media literacy has to do with being able to understand and critique some of the studies that you're alluding to. Stories about digital media use and its neurological correlates around learning, risk-taking, memory, addiction and the like are very sexy and they get clicks online, especially if you can through in some nice functional MRI slices and a byline that reads something like, “Researchers discover that the VTA (ventral tegmental area) responsible for both texting and love of crunchy, salty snacks!”
The applicability of neuroimaging research findings to public policy, education, law and psychological intervention is (and should be understood to be) in its infancy. Those that are rushing the findings to press and the public sphere—while most excellent neurobiologists are bending over backwards to say are tentative and exploratory—usually have a financial motive. This isn't always true, but it's often true. Consumers need to understand the logic of the marketplace at work in both studies and mass media reporting on digital media and its effects. This is certainly a part of “combating” the effects. It's about deep and continual media literacy.
Bustle: What do you think of the views that compare notifications, texts or obsessive checking of social media to drugs or sex? (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google)
Michael Simon: These views, if they're coming from neuropsychology or imaging studies, are related to the discovery of the important role that the Dopamine System (DA) plays in helping to determine motivation, especially motivation for repeated behavior. There are thousands of studies going on right now around the world trying to understand just how the “reward pathways” function and the role that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays in this system. Let me first say that it is really complex. Dopamine is a powerful neurochemical that appears to impact reward-motivated behavior, feelings of pleasure and euphoria, fine tuning our motor functions, and driving sustained behaviors (compulsions and perseverations on tasks we deem salient and pleasurable for us). So, it seems like a “no brainer” to say that if we're perseverating on any task--like texting or taking drugs--dopamine must be somehow implicated. It's not that simple, though. Sometimes people do things in order to avoid consequences, real or imagined. Teens can stay in touch because they love the social connection (which they often do), but also because they fear the consequences of being “out of the loop.” The perception of danger and determination of risk and aversion comes into play, and that involves many more neurochemicals than dopamine and other regions of the brain besides those in the so-called “reward pathways.”
And, for example, young children, teens and adults all respond very differently to rewards and seek out different sensations, depending upon age, relation to puberty, and overall developmental stage of the brain. There are wide individual variations in how reward and pleasure is determined in each human brain, based on biology and biography. There is a lot of good research on the role of dopamine in addictions like alcohol dependence. I think its crucial to keep studying the role of dopamine in relation to addiction and digital media use. But its just too simplistic (and inaccurate) to say that because we have dopamine in our brains, and because texting is fun, we're addicted to it or will become addicted. Parts of the equation make a certain kind of sense to connect up compulsive use of social media (or any kind of compulsive behavior) with dopamine-related brain events. But, again, this is a story that's sexy and sells, not good science. I see a lot of neuroscientific research that is rushed into the popular press in which we're seeing correlational effects, not causation. And don't get me started on the limitations of MRI and other imaging research. I love this stuff, believe me. But the territory is not the map. We don't “see into the human brain.” What we “see” in MRI studies are software representations of the way certain hydrogen nuclei respond when exposed to electromagnetic non-ionizing radiation. Or we're viewing representations of the way blood or water flows in certain brain tissues. Sometimes neuroscientists are guessing that ERPs (event related potentials or electrical signals) come from a particular region in the brain, but they're not exactly sure, and they admit this. In many cases, we're studying non-human animals and translating animal models into a human context to make guesses about the ways humans function. But we don't have “proof.” Proofs are for mathematicians.
Bustle: Do you think as a result of being surrounding by all things tech, future generations are going to evolve a particular way and the brain will develop differently (i.e. particular parts will be enlarged from constant stimulation, etc) ?
Michael Simon: In short, yes, without any doubt. Technology always changes us, as we change technology. Technology extends human reach and power in certain ways, and always curtails other powers. This appears to be exactly how the brain works in terms of neural pruning and arborization of synapses. Our brains, especially adolescent brains, it turns out, are highly “plastic” and malleable...not in all ways but in many ways. Practice creates and reinforces certain neural connections and connectivity of the brain is key to development. It's a simple but stunningly powerful point that mirrors the way the human brain works. In life, interaction and influence are bidirectional. This was Nick Carr's main point in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains. I think Mr. Carr has moved on from this 2011 title, which was, in my view, a bit unfortunate. The title made it much easier for people who read (or didn't read) his book to be attacked as a technological Luddite and determinist. His point, though, was that every major technological advancement in human society has been coupled with changes in how the brain works. And, as it also turns out, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was right and Darwin was wrong about whether the environment changes genes. It can and does. At the end of Darwin's life, he considered himself a supporter of many of Lamarck's views, especially the idea that our environment and our experience shapes the ways we respond, and those changes can get encoded in the DNA and passed on to progeny. It's not about nature versus nurture anymore. It's always both. So, in my view, it would be ridiculous to believe that our constant, deep use of digital media—something that shows no signs of slowing—would not eventually change the ways our brains function, overall, as a species on this planet. Of course our brains are changing. That's called “learning.” But I think you're asking whether what we learn, in general will start showing tendencies rooted in the demands and characteristics of digital media. For example, studies of eye movement and reading show evidence that we use our eyes differently when reading online. We tend to scan the page the way we'd look at a photograph, as opposed to primarily looking left to right (when reading English text, for example). Will we get worse, as a species, at the kind of reading that requires sustained attention and analysis? Some argue we already have gotten worse at this. Others say we are just adapting to new technological requirements and can take in more information, more quickly. The argument between the technological enthusiast and the digital media naysayer is a species one. We need to be studying the question carefully, and studying it for a long time, in order to see how the technology is changing the way our brains function. Anyone who tells me that its “all bad” or “all good” is someone with whom I have little patience.
Of course the technology is changing us and how we understand each other. Right now, in my field of psychology, neuroimaging techniques are the gold standard technique for understanding how the adolescent brain develops. The results—even the tentative results of neuroimaging—are being used to develop theories of psychopathology and psychotherapy, and to shift public policy. It makes a difference about what narrative we use to understand what it means to be an adolescent. Right now, that narrative is dominated by the neurosciences.
Bustle: From experience in your field, how have you seen technology and social media affect the youth and adults who are learning to use it as well as adults learning to cope with its effects?
Michael Simon: I can't begin to answer that. Or rather, I had to write a 510-page book called The Approximate Parent to try to answer that question. Sorry for the shameless plug, but its really true. It's such a crucial and complex question, it prompted me to write a book for parents on adolescent development and how it is being shaped by living in the digital world. Let me put it this way: for most adolescents and emerging adults, technology and social media is the water in which they swim. It's the context and the lifeworld in which they come to understand and express everything all forms of social relationship (friend, lover, collaborator, etc.) and personal identity. Teens are increasingly coming to understand who they are, who they want to be, what the world is and what it means to live in a world of others, through technology and social media. Danah Boyd—whose bestselling book It's Complicated tells us it's all okay and parents should take a chill pill. Her interpretation of her research suggests to her that teens are doing what they've always done, vis-a-vis identity development; they're just doing it all online now and parents should stop their anxious meddling in what is a normal developmental process. I couldn't disagree with her more, but that's another matter.
How have I seen it impact the lives of teens and their parents?
Well, it's just like any other phenomenon. The way something “lands” in the life of a person depends upon their individual biology and biography—you know, what resources they have in their inner and outer environments and what their biological and social history has been up to this point. Social media and digital technology has been and will be a salvation for some teens and families. It has and will destroy the lives of other teens and families. I've seen both effects in my personal and professional life as a psychotherapist—I've seen the salvation and the catastrophe. I've seen boys hospitalized with intense depression over Facebook-related events. I've seen girls who cut themselves (self-injury) ostensibly triggered by “drama” going on over Twitter. I've seen kids despondent when they don't get immediate responses to one of the 400 texts they send daily and met parents whose kids put their cellphone in a ziplock bag and take it into the shower with them so they don't miss a text.
We need to better understand which teens are most at risk for the problems associated with the powerfully alluring use of technology and social media. It won't help to tell parents just to stop worrying. Some kids need their parents even closer, around understanding the effects of digital media. Who needs parents close and working on learning and teaching media literacy? The short list would include kids who struggle with self-injury, proneness to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders or who have a family history of addiction (or are struggling with addiction themselves). Oh, and let's throw in kids with attentional or executive functioning difficulties and learning disabilities and those who have problems with social relatedness and forming and keeping friendships. Should I keep going? Eventually my list, for various reasons, will come to include anybody who cares about, works with or has a positive interest in the healthy development of a child.
Bustle: Overall, do you think social media is more helpful or harmful? Do you have any thoughts to add or perspective I didn't touch upon?
Michael Simon: I very strongly work to avoid answering that question. No offense. I just think its absolutely the wrong question. The answers are always context dependent. How do you define help? How do you define harm? Helpful for whom? In what circumstances and when? Something can be harmful in large amounts or certain forms and helpful in other forms (like a virus used to make a vaccine). Often a poison and a cure are not entirely different things. You're asking the wrong person. I used to teach philosophy and religious studies. The answer to most things for me is “it depends.” The only way for a parent to know whether social media and digital technology usage is harmful or helpful is to be what I call an “Approximate Parent.” I'm playing on the word, because it suggests “approximating” answers to hard questions as well as being “proximate” enough to tell when something is going wrong with your child. It means you have to test out strategies for what works for yourchild and then gather data about that. You have to know how to read your child's answers, and he or she won't often answer you directly about your particular “theory” of whether something is good or bad for them. Parenting is hard and it requires continual observation, engagement and refinement. One book, study or article that says that social media is good or bad won't help you do your job as a parent. The question is always going to be: what works or doesn't work for my particular child, and how can I tell the difference?
One of the coolest, most useful and engaging things we can do in taking care of ourselves and our children is to be and teach our children to be a health scientist. You do this by being interested in and curious about what theories we are making about our health, what the biases and problems are with those theories, whether they are “working,” and curious what to do when they’re not. Being a health scientist implies approximate parenting because it is always about observation, data gathering and collection, correction and refinement…and starting again. It incorporates psychologist Kurt Lewin’s wise saying that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” By definition, a good theory is never a final theory.