'Cloud'ing the Young Mind

LAKSHMI on February 05, 2015

Adolescents and teenagers of today belong to what is now popularly referred to as the digital native generation. They are very comfortable and fluent with the use of technology, especially the Internet, which as a whole, undoubtedly provides opportunities in terms of skill development, education, and entertainment. Beyond providing access to a broad range of information, the Internet provides opportunities for extensive communication among people and makes it easier to share experiences and expertise. Thus, the positive role of technology and Internet in life cannot be overemphasised.

Child looking up at the cloud

The negative impacts of the Internet on youngsters are not trivial either. It has been recognized that young people online are open to being exposed to inappropriate content or online bullying and harassment and loss of privacy. The momentary expediencies of Internet platforms including social media could be harmful to vulnerable youngsters who are just being introduced to emotional awareness and society. The anonymity of Internet gives the cushion for youngsters to reveal before reflection, with no direct verbal or visual cues available of the immediate or protracted impact it can have on the receiver of the information or herself.  The permanence of Internet content can be very damaging in the long run.

While effects such as the above are more objective and clearly defined, the more ambiguous and confusing effect of the Internet is on emotions and social skills of youngsters. Systematic research has shown that the injudicious use of technology, in particular, the Internet, is related to a few psychological problems. Children and young adults who overdo TV and video games are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a variety of attention-span disorders. Nicholas Carr in “The Shallows” claims that the hypertext hopping nature of the Internet could also contribute to low attention span of the Internet generation, but there are others who pooh pooh it as the neo Elvis Hypothesis.

There have been scientific studies that show a direct relationship between Internet addiction and loneliness and depression and low self esteem. The most disturbing finding yet is the fact that hostility and depression associated with Internet addiction was similar to that with drug-use. However, this is true only when there is addiction and compulsive overuse. Use of Internet itself has been found not to have any negative effect on the emotions of the user. So perhaps the psychiatric effect of technology is not as serious as the social effects.

The digital native typically prefers socializing and collaborating with others through technology, such as social networking, rather than in person; what used to be called “social incompetence” in the past now has a fancy name - Preference for Online Social Interaction  or POSI. This is not an unsubstantiated claim; the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 75% of all teenagers have mobile phones with one in every three sending more than 100 text messages a day, texting has now become "the preferred channel of basic communication between teens and their friends". And these numbers are only for phone, which is the tip of the whole computer assisted communication iceberg. Another report by Pew Internet & American Life Project and Harvard’s Berkman Center says that of the 95 percent of 12-17 teens who use the Internet in USA, 81 percent use social networks. It would not be a hyperbole to speculate that the value systems and outlooks of the digital native are fashioned more on what she learns from a virtual world than her family and upbringing.

There have been a few studies on the impact of the Internet on the social skill development in children and adolescents. But we don’t quite need scientific evidence were common sense would suffice. Time spent on a gadget is time not spent elsewhere, such as in playing outside, or having a face-to-face interaction with family and friends. While the Internet does facilitate communication with geographically distant people like never before, this is often at the expense of communication with people physically present around us. There is thus a tussle between social displacement and social compensation.

Virtual socialization and social anxiety are a classic case of chicken and egg. The anonymity of the Internet can potentially help people who have a pathologic problem in establishing social relationships and may aid social connectedness and provide a sense of belongingness. A study showed that socially anxious youngsters tend to use the Internet more for social interaction while socially comfortable ones use the Internet more for information. Another study shows apparently conflicting results: while Internet benefits depressed adolescents who have no company or friends, it exacerbates depression among adolescence who have social anxiety. This raises a vicious circle – the social anxiety causes people to seek refuge in the Internet, thus making them addicts, which in turn worsens the anxiety. Justifiably, Internet addiction has been labeled as a symptom of social tension. Indeed, Tamyra Pierce, a journalism professor at California State University, Fresno, showed that as students spent more time on online communication, they showed more symptoms of social anxiety.

It is clear that there is still much concerted research required to fully understand the interaction between social health and Internet use. From existing studies that often provide conflicting insights, it can be seen that technology cannot be written off as an unhealthy intrusion that must be uprooted, but rather as an aid within limits.

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Photo credit: h.koppdelaney / Foter / CC BY-ND