The Case Against Social Media

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The revolution in digital technology and social media has been compared to the invention of the printing press in terms of how this development has changed the way people communicate ideas and information.  This technology is so pervasive in our lives that imagining the days before Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, and iPods is like imaging the dark ages of black and white television.  Everyone now seems to have these devices and they appear to be constantly using them.  They are fun and they put us in constant contact, but it is important to consider whether these devices and the culture they have fostered have actually improved our lives or are they just an expensive distraction?

Stanford Professor James P.Steyer’s book, Talking Back to Facebook, discusses the proliferation of social media and its effect on young people.  In this book Mr. Steyer examines the very real problems associated with our ever-increasing fascination with social media, which include distraction, addiction (compulsive behavior), loss of innocence, and surrender of privacy.

In young people today there is intense social pressure to be constantly connected via the social media networks like Facebook.  This obsession creates its own sub-culture that dominates young people’s time and shapes their decision making and their identities.  The social pressure to create popular public personas and the accompanying compulsive urge to constantly monitor and update one’s profile lures young people into a trap where errors of judgment are not easily erased.  This phenomenon also conditions young people to become shallow poseurs who stockpile “friends” as a means of validating the faux personas that they manufacture and post.

Of course, healthy use of social media websites has many advantages.  People can almost effortlessly stay in contact with friends and family.  However, many young people lack the maturity to use social media sites like Facebook responsibly.  For them Facebook becomes a fantasy world of impersonal interactions, a virtual world that substitutes faux friendships and fabricated identities for the real thing.  Authenticity and sincerity are too readily and easily sacrificed in the pursuit of attention and popularity, as young people internalize the core tenets of our celebrity culture.

It is not surprising that numerous studies have confirmed that young people who spend excessive amounts of time on Facebook and other social media sites develop a variety of cognitive and emotional problems.  The tremendous rise in ADD is not merely coincidence.  Considering the fact that young people today are, from a very young age, bombarded with all sorts of distracting, time-wasting digital toys to alleviate their boredom, it follows that many fail to develop the sort of sustained attention necessary to excel academically.  Who has time to read a book or write a sentence, much less engage any sort of critical, rational thinking when you are constantly busy punching buttons on your Ipod, watching the latest viral Youtube video, or keeping pace with the latest celebrity update on Twitter?  It’s not surprising that the latest SAT reading scores for the class of 2012 hit a four-decade low, alarming experts. Young people today are generally becoming more narcissistic, distracted, impulsive, and bored, and it’s no accident.  The advent of this new technology and the pervasive social pressure to be constantly connected are conditioning them to be exactly that way. The infatuation with digital technology and social media is fostering a generation that is compulsively seeking stimulation and distraction to stave off the ever-present boredom that permeates their lives.

This phenomenon can be explained by the ways in which technology has come to rule their lives.  In a sense it is much like those science fiction stories where the machines have taken over, although in a subtle, sleight of hand way.  Essentially young people are just too distracted by all the forms of competing stimulation that their neurological and cognitive development is impeded.  As a professor, Steyer observes firsthand the destructive effects that the proliferation of digital media has had on his student’s attention spans, critical thinking, and ability to intelligently articulate their thoughts.  In terms of neurological development, it’s not that this technology is making kids dumber, it is merely distracting them so that they fail to invest the time necessary to develop the critical thinking skills that will enable them to excel in an increasingly competitive world.

The rise in digital technology has also taken an emotional toll and negatively impacted many young people’s ability to relate to themselves and others in a healthy way.  The huge social pressure to create and maintain an idealized image in line with what is condoned in the popular culture cult of celebrity has pushed many kids into a digital hall of mirrors.  Relationships and identities become distorted to the point that they lose their tether with reality.  This non-stop posing, hyper self-consciousness, and narcissism have negative implications for the development of healthy, mature identities.  The obsession with the digital culture of “cool” distracts kids from more important pursuits and undermines parents’ attempts to impart the coping skills and emotional stability necessary for their kids to succeed in life.

The constant connectivity has ironically caused young people to become increasingly detached and isolated.  Not only are they spending hours on Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and sending endless, mindless text messages, they are also wasting hour upon hour gaming.

Increasingly sophisticated, and some might say addictive, video games are also usurping young people’s attention and keeping them from more productive investment of their most valuable resource, their time.  In a phenomenon known as pathological gaming, many kids will compulsively spend hours transfixed in front of the TV or computer screen playing video games until their eyes are fried and their thumbs are prematurely arthritic.  Immersion in these virtual worlds, where the player acts out his/her athletic or violent fantasies, depending on the game, results in an emotionally narcotizing experience that the player compulsively seeks.  Kids susceptible to anxiety or depression are often attracted to the emotionally numbing character of these video games as a means of escape from reality.  They seek refuge from an arbitrary and confusing reality in a fantasy world where they feel a safe degree of control.  Especially concerning are the increasingly realistic, ultraviolent games that fuel violent, destructive fantasies and condone anti-social behavior.  It cannot come as a surprise that a significant number of the perpetrators of school shootings spent hours obsessively playing violent video games that undoubtedly fueled and shaped their violent fantasy worlds before they spilled over into reality.

The compulsive use of this distraction technology and the digital dependency that it fosters has potentially serious neurological implications according to some experts.  The digital devices stimulate the impulse-driven lower brain, which is the deepest, most primitive part of the brain.  Kids fail to adequately stimulate and develop the prefrontal cortex, which is the center of the brain responsible for judgment, rational planning, and critical thinking.

The myth of multi-tasking has also been discounted, which parlays into Steyer’s position that kids today suffer from “mental brownout”.  Despite claims to the contrary, people cannot process two streams of information simultaneously and impaired cognitive functioning is the result when the brain is distracted with competing sources of information that simultaneously vie for attention.  A perfect example is the use of cell phones while driving, where people are literally driven to distraction and the results are often deadly.  This culture of boredom and the need for constant stimulation has grave consequences for all of us.

In fact the Wall Street Journal recently published an article that noted the significant increase in accidental injuries to children resulting from parent’s compulsive texting.  The article cited two noteworthy cases where parents, who were supposed to be supervising their young children, became so absorbed in their texting that they failed to notice that their children had fallen into pools and were drowning.  Considering how quickly young children can accidentally hurt themselves while playing, as they fail to appreciate inherent physical risks, a complete lapse of attention by the supervising adult can have devastating and sometimes even tragic effects.

It is also important to consider the privacy and intellectual property concerns implicated by our obsession with social media.  The bottom line is that Facebook and other social media sites are a business, and a very successful business at that.  In fact Facebook’s reported revenue in 2011 was $3.2 billion and the revenue figures for 2012 promise to be even more impressive after the IPO earlier in the year.  Where does all this money come from?  The users and their personal information, which is the commodity that is exploited by Facebook to the tune of a handsome profit considering they pay next to nothing for it.  By aggregating user’s personal data and tracking their behavior, great quantities of data can be accumulated.  The value of this data is that it can be used to predict consumer behavior and be exploited by virtue of behavioral marketing.  This faith in the value of personal data is what drives the tech industry and it is also exactly what is making the moguls of the new social media extremely wealthy. In their case information is not just power, its money.

In this collision between the public interest and self-interest it is not surprising what triumphs.  It is important to acknowledge that Facebook is not in the privacy protection business, which is evidenced by the absurd doublespeak of its founder Mark Zuckerberg who looks forward to a new world of “transparency, frictionless sharing, and evolving social norms.”  What exactly does this mean?  It means that we are being exploited for profit.  Essentially, on-line social media companies like Facebook are callously exploiting our intellectual property for profit.

So the teen brain on digital media might be like the image from those anti-drug television commercials from the earlier 90’s where an egg was dropped into a hot, greased frying pan with the burner turned up high.  But what’s the solution?  Obviously there is something to be said for putting down the I phone, turning off the video games, and cutting back on the time spent on Facebook, especially if these activities are interfering with one’s life.  The best solution is to use these technologies responsibly and in a mature, healthy manner that improves quality of life rather than detracting from it.  The other alternative is only using the technology that is actually necessary to function in the modern world and cutting out the toys that just fuel procrastination.  The key is having something better to do.

WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO?

1.     Read “Talking Back to Facebook” by James P. Steyer.  He is a Stanford Professor and founder of Common Sense Media.  It is also worth checking out his website: commonsensemedia.org for information and advice on intelligent use of digital social media.

2.     Online behavior has neurological consequences, especially in children whose brains are still developing.  “Limit the amount of time your kid spends in front of a screen.  This is just as essential for tots as they are for teens.”  Professor Steyer has suggestions for young children through teens as to what is appropriate.  “In your baby’s first years, you’re setting patterns and habits for the rest of childhood.”  It is so important you start your child off on the right path, don’t let them develop bad habits early on that will be a lifelong burden and potentially magnify until they get out of control.

3.     Be very selective as to what your kid can watch.  “Watch the shows, try out the games, and check out their ratings and age appropriateness at www.commonsense.org before you let your preschooler see or play them.”  Our founding partner did not have cable television in his home until his kids graduated from college.  His wife did not approve of what she saw on MTV and did not want her kids watching it and being immersed in that ridiculous culture of “cool”.  It is always important to remember how impressionable children are and how vulnerable they are to influence and suggestion.  It is equally prescient to note that most of popular culture that permeates TV, movies, and social media is driven by a multi-billion dollar marketing and advertising industry that is insidiously manipulative and only interested in shaping the minds of young consumers.

4.    “Don’t get your kid a cell phone until they are ready for high school.”  Recently in San Diego 12 middle-school students were found to be accessing pornography on their cell phones in the classroom.  Read our blogs about how pornography can lead to all sorts of terrible consequences for the offender and victim.  The cell phone must come with the agreement you as the parent can regularly review their text messages.  You can be held liable for the civil and criminal actions of your minors until they are 18.  Know what they are doing, who are their friends and be an active and diligent parent.

5.    A kid can use Facebook officially when they turn 13.  Professor Speyer recommends your kid be at least 15.  If you do allow your kid to get a Facebook account you must be able to access it regularly to see what is being posted.  We have many clients both boys and girls where postings on Facebook have led to threats to harm and kill and even to fights.  The consequences for those involved have been suspensions and/or expulsion from school.  It is also important to note that the actual postings on Facebook have been used in criminal and civil proceedings against the minors.  Read our blogs on bullying, teen sexting, and sex between minors.

This blog was written by David Kaufman an intern with our office awaiting his State Bar license.  Email us and tell us your comments.  If you would like us to do a blog on a particular subject, please let us know.  Share experiences you may have had that could be helpful to others.   Visit our educational videos on YouTube or at JuvenileLawCenter.com or McGlinn & McGlinn, Attorneys at Law.

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