Lori Anderson: Screening out downside to technology

Our new-found obsession with of social media and electronic gadgets is not all bad, writes Lori Anderson

Psst! Are you troubled by technology? When lying alone in the dark do you ever imagine that your iPhone, iPad and laptop are all ganging up on you, that the master/servant relationship has been reversed and that you are now at their beck and call? OK, perhaps that one is just for me and my personal digital night terrors, but it’s clear there is a lot of fretting over what technology has given us.

The “Google effect” means that we now know where to retrieve information but then can’t remember it once we have found it, while according to various reports our Kindles, iPads, iPhones and obsession with Facebook are leading to a rise in narcissistic personality disorder, addiction and depression while teenagers are using shorter sentences, simple tenses and limited vocabulary.

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For too long critics have focused on the negatives associated with social media and our immersion in Twitter and Facebook, but today writing is actually overtaking speech as the most common form of human communication which is a genuine paradigm shift.

According to the latest report from Ofcom, the communications regulator, we text or e-mail distant friends more often than we ever speak to them in person, or even on the phone. We are living in a new epistolary age, just one where the formal rules of “Dear Sir” and “yours sincerely” have been ejected, we now type the way we speak. As Simon Kuper in the Financial Times pointed out, “pedants have been lamenting the decline of language since at least AD63”. John Humphrys, the Today presenter’s description of texters as “vandals who are trying to do to the language what Ghengis Khan did to his neighbours” is, in his opinion, plain wrong.

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He pointed out that Clare Wood, a development psychologist at Coventry University insisted that persistent texting led not to a diminution of ability but an actual improvement in both spelling and typing. The downside is that the concertina effect on language, which has seen Twitter users abandoning punctuation and words such as “a”, “the” and “and” is being reflected in the real world where apostrophes have been abandoned in street signs in England and Wales.

What is interesting is that, according to an article in the journal Memory & Cognition, we are also better at remembering quotes from blogs and notes on Facebook than those in newspapers and magazines: “The relatively unfiltered and spontaneous production of one person’s mind is just the sort of thing that is readily stored in another’s mind”, according to the report.

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But how will all this screen time affect us? Neuroscientist Professor Susan Green argues that electronic devices are even having an impact at the microcellular level. Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment that illustrated that even the act of imagining an activity can change the structure of the brain. Three groups of volunteers were asked to a) practice on a piano, b) stare at a piano and c) imagine practicing on a piano in a room with no actual piano. While those who simply stared at the piano illustrated no difference in brain activity, those who imagined practicing demonstrated almost as much physical changes in the part of the brain associated with finger movements as those who did actually play the piano.

Psychological Science magazine is about to publish research by Barbara L Frederickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, which argues that repeated use of electronic media devices can reduce our biological capacity to connect with other people.

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The irony is that, “digital natives”, children born into this new age, are enjoying the benefits. A report in the Atlantic magazine this month pointed out that babies and toddlers can learn more from iPads than the books they cannot yet read.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that television should be discouraged for children under the age of two on the grounds that research into brain development believed that the most crucial factor was “direct interaction with parents and other significant care givers”.

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Since then, the screens have become smaller and by 2006, 90 per cent of parents said their children under two accessed some form of electronic media. When the American Academy updated its guidelines in 2011, it once again discouraged access to passive media for those under two.

The point is that the iPad is far from passive as the touch technology is as understandable to a very young child as building a brick tower. Researchers at the Children’s Media Centre at George Town University have found that for toddlers tapping the screen and being corrected immediately can be instructive and allows them to take in information accurately.

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Sandra Calvert, director of the Children’s Media Centre at George Town University, said: “People say we are experimenting with our children.

“But from my perspective, it’s already happened, and there’s no way to turn it back. Children’s lives are filled with media at younger and younger ages, and we need to take advantage of what these technologies have to offer.”

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The wonders of the digital world will only increase and if the development of civilisation has taught us anything it is that anything new is treated at first with suspicion and fear. Comic books in the 1950s were considering a corrupting influence on the youth of the day, just as computer games are today. So we should turn to the ancient Greeks, who did so love a new gadget (water clock, gear, screw etc) and remember the words of Aristotle: “moderation in all things”.