Blocks and books better than electronic games for your toddler?

Thanks for this post, Dona Matthews! 

Blocks and books better than electronic games for your toddler?

I think one important take-home message is that we need to think through how electronic toys could be designed to better foster communication  and creativity.

This is Your Brain on Technology?

There is a lot of polarized dialogue about the role of communication technologies in our lives – particularly mobile devices and social media: Technology is either ruining us or making our lives better than ever before. For the worried crowd, there is the notion that these technologies are doing something to our brain; something not so good – like making us stupid, numbing us, weakening social skills. It recalls the famous anti-drug campaign: This is your brain on drugs. In the original commercial, the slogan is accompanied by a shot of an egg sizzling on a skillet.

So, this is your brain on technology? Is technology frying our brain? Is this a good metaphor?

One fundamental problem with this metaphor is that these technologies are not doing anything to us; our brain is not “on” technology. Rather, these technologies are tools. When we use tools, we change the world and ourselves. So, in this sense, of course our brain is changed by technology. But our brain is also changed when we read a book or bake a pie. We should not accord something like a mobile device a privileged place beyond other tools.  Rather, we should try to remember that the effects of technology are a two-way street: we choose to use tools in a certain way, which in turn influences us.

We would also do well to remember that the brain is an amazing, seemingly alchemical combination of genetic predispositions, experiences, random events, and personal choices. That is, our brains are an almost incomprehensibly complex nature-nurture stew.  This brain of ours is also incredibly resilient and able to recover from massive physical insults. So, using a tool like a mobile device isn’t going to “fry” our brain. Repeated use of any tool will shape our brain, surely, but fry it? No.

So, “this is your brain on technology” doesn’t work for me.

The metaphor I like better is to compare our brains “on technology” to a muscle. This is a multi-faceted metaphor. On one hand, like a muscle, if you don’t use your brain to think and reason and remember, there is the chance that you’ll become less mentally agile and sharp. That is, if you start using technology at the expense of using these complex and well-honed skills, then those skills will wither and weaken. It’s “use it or lose it.”

On the other hand, we use tools all the time to extend our abilities and strength –whether it’s the equipment in a gym that allows us to repeatedly use muscles in order to strengthen them; or whether it’s a tool that takes our muscle power and amplifies it (think of a lever). Similarly, by helping us do things better, technology may serve to strengthen rather than weaken us.

It is an open question whether one or both of these views are true – and for what people and under what conditions. But I believe that we need to leave behind notions of technology “doing” things to our brains, and instead think about the complex ways in which our brains work with technology – whether that technology is a book or a mobile device.

 

Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face: Sensitive Souls and Social Media

There is an idea out there that’s prevalent but which has little or no scientific support:  that people who use more social media are less sensitive, less empathic, and less emotionally attuned. My students Lee Dunn, Amy Medina and I wanted to put that assumption to the test (and reported these findings at the Society for Psychophysiological Research Annual Conference). We found the opposite: that people who prefer to use technology like social media to communicate with others are actually more emotionally sensitive and more empathic. These folks aren’t emotionally stunted or disconnected. If anything, they are more attuned to their emotions and to the emotions of others, and also might be more challenged by these emotions. They are “sensitive souls.”

This makes sense when you start to think about how hard face-to-face interactions can be.When we use social media, we may feel in control and safe compared to face to face. Technology affords a comfortable distance. It’s simply easier to tell someone you’re angry via email or IM, without having to deal with their reactions in person. So, if you’re an emotionally sensitive person, you might be drawn to social media. This is a judgment-free statement. Our findings don’t weigh in on whether this helps or hinders a person’s social and emotional skills. That is the critical next step in our research. Here is what we know so far:

How we put it to the test. While previous studies ask people to report on very basic aspects of their social media use – like how many hours a week they use social media sites – we did something new. We asked people how they prefer to communicate with others (and what they actually did over the past 6 months) when they need to express emotions like anger or excitement, ask for or give social support during emotionally tough times, and exchange information. For each question, answers could vary from 100% using technology (not including the phone) to 100% using face-to-face interactions. Many people showed a strong face-to-face preference, but just as many showed a strong tech preference.

Then, we asked people to tell us about their emotional lives – emotional highs and lows, empathy for others, personality, and satisfaction with the social support they receive from others. Finally, we recorded EEG (aka “brainwaves”) while they viewed emotional pictures. While EEG doesn’t give us the power to directly access people’s consciousness (Oh, Dennis Quaid, you really had us believing that you could EEG your way into our brains in the 1984 movie Dreamscape), EEG can measure the degree to which our brains are sensitive to different types of emotional information – pleasant, disgusting, erotic, dangerous, and cute, cuddly things. We showed participants everything from sex to kittens, and graves to gore.

The power of EEG, portrayed by the movie Dreamscape (1984). Dennis Quaid is probably NOT looking at pictures of kittens.

Findings. Data analyses are incomplete and are not yet published, so I’ll only discuss the broad strokes of our findings. As I stated at the top, those who prefer to communicate via social media and technology versus face-to-face interactions are sensitive souls: they report feeling more negative emotions (like anxiousness and sadness), are less extroverted, and are less satisfied with the social support they receive from others. On the other hand, they also report feeling more empathic towards others (for example, “I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset” or “it upsets me to see someone being treated disrespectfully”).

Complementing this, EEG findings show that those with a social media/tech preference have stronger brain responses to pictures portraying mortality – graves, sick people, dying loved ones. That is, the brains of folks who prefer social media are more sensitive to pictures that are reminders of death and loss.

This is not about social media causing anything! The popular press often describes research about social media in inaccurate ways – saying that social media caused people to be a certain way (e.g., the idea of Facebook depression). This sounds sexy but is just wrong most of the time. Unless you’ve done experiments that show social media directly change something about people, or you’ve tracked how social media predicts changes in people over time, you cannot even begin to discuss causality.

So what can we discuss? What does this all mean? What it means is that our findings are not about causality, they are descriptive. These results help us to describe the social-emotional profile of people who prefer and use tech-mediated versus face-to-face social interactions – their personalities, goals, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, this can help us understand the growing role of social media in our everyday routines, and why, for some, these tools can feel like life boats in the stormy seas of our lives. What remains unclear is whether these life boats are going to bring us to shore or whether we will be lost at sea (ok, this metaphor is getting a little much).

Where are we going with this? Importantly, we have no idea what the long-term costs or benefits of social media are for our sensitive souls. That is where I am really going with this research. I believe we need to track how a tech preference influences us from the cradle to the rocking chair: in our digital natives who are using these tools before they are out of diapers; in adults, who almost can’t remember a time when these tools didn’t exist; and in older adults, who may be discovering the immense world that opens up before them when they use technology to communicate with others.

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