Sunday, May 2, 2010

Will Facebook and texting be the death of democracy?

It is obvious from the empty streets in our neighborhoods on summer evenings that childhood has changed drastically since mine in the 1950s. We played spud, and kick the can, and capture the flag until dark — but I bet few children today know those games, or all the hopscotch and jump-rope rhymes, either. The game lore of childhood, once passed down from child to child, has disappeared, as noted recently by David Elkind in a New York Times Op-Ed called “Playtime Is Over.”

The kids are inside — watching TV, playing computer games, generally not interacting with other children face to face. My mother used to say, with some exasperation, that my siblings and I spent more time arguing over rules than actually playing games. She was probably right, but think what we learned from that! That’s how we were socialized: we learned to share, to get along, to follow rules, to solve problems, to deal with difficult people. Many children arrive in schools today without those skills.

And where once they might have picked the skills up there, that is less likely today. Tweens and teens are showing a preference for interacting virtually over doing so in person. They’d rather text than even talk on the phone. All their “socializing” is interfering with their socialization.

What are the implications of this enormous shift?

In the last post, I was writing about how much of our decision-making is subconscious, done in the blink of an eye without our conscious awareness. All our lives, we should be developing and further honing those skills. But, like the ability to reliably make a jump shot, the ability to quickly and accurately size up a person or a situation requires endless practice. It starts with the preverbal baby’s wide-eyed attention as she tries to decode language, and the physical laws of the universe, and how to make others serve her better. It should continue through a childhood of encountering other people and situations and learning to master the survival skills required to thrive. That includes a subconscious ability to “read” people.

What if we were to lose the ability/facility to assess things so quickly?

The book iBRAIN by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan has me worried about a loss of skill in gut-level assessments. If our young are losing face-to-face cognitive skills due to immersion in technology, that portends poorer decisions by future voters. If they don’t look people in the face anymore, they either never make or gradually abandon the neural pathways allowing them to assess expressions with any validity. Does that mean that our subconscious judgments about whom we can trust not to betray us are becoming less reliable? Does it offer some explanation of the popularity of good-looking, affable “empty suits”? Certainly, my discomfort with body language has made me nervous about potential leaders (think of John Edwards’ bland and unconvincing “sincere” look). Would younger voters, less attuned to facial expressions, take it at face value?


  1. It's taken me a while to post this comment because I can't think or assess things quickly. Just because kids these days are learning different things and in different ways doesn't mean the end of the world. Just the end of the world as WE know it.
    BTW, why has it taken me so long to discover this blog? And why does Geo follow your blog, but not mine???

  2. Because it lets him make comments about what really motivates teenage boys, I presume.

  3. I feel bound to note an editorial in The Economist that listed previous sky-is-falling denunciations of progress (from writing to movies to comic books to video games). It asserts that "new communications technologies tend to strengthen democracy, not weaken it, as revolutionaries have known ever since Thomas Paine and others used the printing press to argue for American independence." Good point. I'm still worried about subtle neurological changes, though.