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Is Facebook Stunting Your Child’s Growth?

• April 23, 2012 • 6:09 PM

A sociologist says social media damages tweens’ emotional intelligence – with potentially serious consequences.

I waved as I walked past Sara’s room: I’m a resident supervisor, a “Dorm Dad,” in a coed dorm at Stanford University. Sara told me she was texting Billy, her “sort of” boyfriend. I had just seen Billy sitting in the lounge down the hall, and told her so. “I know,” she said. “It’s more efficient to text him.” I smiled. The computer screen behind her was filled with Facebook pages, chat windows, YouTube videos, and a smattering of homework assignments. Efficiency? I’ve never seen a group of people better at wasting time than college freshmen.

Not long before this, I was at my 35th high school reunion. One of the women I had dated those many years ago gave me the love letters I had written her when we went to different colleges. They were filled with lines about how hard it was to express my feelings when we couldn’t see each other. I went on about how I longed to see her face and hear her voice (long-distance phone calls were expensive), both because of the way it made me feel and so that I could know the depths of her love for me. In the letters, I bemoaned how thin and pathetic my emotions seemed compared with face-to-face interaction. When I mentioned this to Sara, she said, “That seems like a huge overstatement! Thanks to technology, emotions are easy.”

I don’t know of anyone in my generation who found emotion in the teen years to be “easy.” Technology has often been a labor-saving device, but could it lead love’s (and other emotions’) labors to be lost?

In my years studying the psychology of human-computer interaction, and serving as a Dorm Dad, I have seen a much more technologically based and casual approach to the understanding and expression of emotions develop in students. While I observed these changes in college students, new research suggests that, for girls, these changes are happening much earlier. Will the fact that young women are learning and practicing emotions behind a screen affect them later, when they apply for jobs in a tough marketplace, get into the workplace, or navigate the often-difficult realities of sex, love, and relationships?

For females, the most critical period of emotional development is ages 8 to 12. Girls who do not establish a healthy emotional life by age 12 tend to have much higher rates of depression and social and emotional difficulties than girls who “get it” by that age. Boys? Their emotional development is spread out over a much longer period. (I was reminded of the great differences in emotional intelligence not long ago: for Christmas, the women in my dorm all wrote lovely, emotive notes on a huge card for their resident assistant. For their gift, the boys in the dorm filled the RA’s room with traffic cones and other junk so that she couldn’t open her door. The RA, by way of explanation, told me, “That’s how 18-year-old boys say ‘I love you!’ ”)

To explore the emotional development of girls ages 8 to 12 in a technology-rich age, I worked with Stanford education professor Roy Pea and a number of student researchers. With Discovery Girls magazine, we ran an online survey of 3,641 tween girls, asking questions about how frequently they used a variety of media, including Facebook and Twitter, email, video, music, and reading. We also asked how frequently the tweens had face-to-face interactions with peers, and how often the girls used a number of media at one time (to find out if they were heavy multitaskers). Because research suggests that easy access to technology can have significant effects on its use, we asked about cellphone ownership and whether the tweens had a television or a computer in their room. Finally, we gauged the tweens’ social and emotional development through statements such as “compared to people my age, I feel normal” and “I feel like I have a lot of friends.”

Online communication has been growing rapidly. Does that mean that tweens are choosing between the real social world and the online world, and thus can be divided into “real-life kids” versus “online kids”? No. There is essentially no correlation between the level of face-to-face and online interactions for tweens: There are many who engage actively in both environments; those who are heavily skewed to one mode or the other; and those who prefer social isolation, avoiding both real-life and online interactions. We have to ask how the amount of in-person interaction affects tweens independently of the amount of online interaction and multitasking.

If technology makes emotions easy, we should find that the kids who are actively using online social interactions are doing better emotionally or at least do not show deficits. This was not the case. Tween girls who are heavy users of online social interaction feel less normal (as measured by their agreement or disagreement with statements like “I often feel rejected by people my age”) than girls who use online social media less frequently. The girls who use more social media derive fewer positive feelings from interacting with friends, and have more friends whom their parents think are a bad influence. They even get less sleep, which is associated with negative mood and irritability. Media multitasking shows these same negative effects. The one positive predictor of healthy emotional interactions, as well as feelings of social success (statements such as “people my age understand me,” and “I feel accepted by my friends”): lots of face-to-face communication.

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Why do the emotional livesof female (and possibly male) tweens suffer as a result of heavy online media use and multitasking, and benefit from face-to-face interaction? I believe healthy emotional development takes practice. Just as muscles atrophy if they are not continually asked to work, the emotion-processing parts of the brain need to be constantly stimulated by face-to-face interaction to remain effective. The human brain is built to unconsciously detect remarkably small changes in other people’s smile and frown muscles, pupil size (larger pupils indicate happiness), wrinkles around the eyes (genuine smiles have them, but false smiles don’t), skin color (faces get pale with fear and red with rage), eyebrow movement (arching indicates puzzlement), pitch (happy is higher-pitched), volume (loud is more excited), speech rate (rapid can indicate fear), and posture (tight bodies and downward head indicate sadness). The absence of these cues from the text-based interaction typical of the Web leads tweens and teens to develop “emotion atrophy.” Girls who spend more time interacting via a screen than in person do not get sufficient practice in observing and experiencing true emotions. As a result, they are less equipped to navigate the social world.

Added to that, plenty of other aspects of online social interaction impede emotional exercise. Social websites have become the happiest places on Earth: the vast majority of photos on Facebook show people smiling and having fun. While online sites were initially a place to express frustration and sadness in a safe environment (after all, people couldn’t see you), users are now under some pressure to avoid anything but positive comments: statements about negative emotions are much less “liked” and shared, especially when posted by sad people. Therefore, kids think that negative emotions are abnormal rather than worthy of contemplation. While it might seem desirable for tweens to avoid these difficult emotions, kids who ignore or suppress these emotions are not learning to cope with them. If we do not teach tweens how to be sad, to paraphrase Sherry Turkle, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, we are dooming them to sadness, as they will not develop tools to move beyond that feeling.

The predominance of positive comments on social media sites encourages emotion atrophy in another way: positive emotions are much simpler than negative emotions, which require more processing in more parts of the brain. Negative emotions are better remembered and, therefore, more strongly affect memories of events; and they trigger much deeper physical responses. The absence of negativity in online interactions explains why modern teens and tweens seem to find emotions easy, but that absence will fail to help them develop critical skills.

Online social interactions also encourage emotional atrophy by reducing the pressure of time: just as muscles become stronger when the speed of repetition is intense, the emotional parts of the brain become more effective when they have to operate at high speeds. Online interactions allow tweens and teens time to think about what a message means, and how best to respond (although their comments may not seem that way!). Why is this a problem? Humans manifest and experience changes in emotion in the range of milliseconds to seconds, so when people are interacting face-to-face, they must be ready to notice rapid changes and to respond equally rapidly. When tweens cannot respond to others at an appropriate rate, the kids seem insensitive and uncaring, making it more difficult to sustain healthy relationships. When tweens cannot respond rapidly enough to their own feelings, they become impulsive; this lack of emotion regulation is associated with less life satisfaction, weaker relationships with friends, and greater pessimism.

In addition, while online social interactions hide the cues that encourage emotional learning and slow the pace at which emotions have to be dealt with, multitasking prevents tweens and teens from seeing them. If two tweens in a conversation are each playing on their own iPad, or groups of tweens are all texting while they interact (both increasingly common phenomena), their attention is diverted from the key emotion markers. If they are multitasking while engaging in online interaction, they are at best absorbing the denotation of the words while missing the emotional connotations.

My students and I did a study comparing high and low multitaskers watching a popular YouTube video that demonstrates “inattention blindness.” In the video, six people throw a basketball back and forth; the high and low multitaskers were asked to count the number of passes thrown by the three players in white. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks across the scene: typically, half of all people do not see the gorilla. The high multitaskers did much better than average at seeing the gorilla. Unfortunately, they also tended to count the number of passes incorrectly! Heavy multitaskers will look anywhere except where they should. So, even when multitasking tweens have access to the rich emotion of others’ faces, voices, and bodies, they will not focus on those cues. As a result, emotional atrophy is exacerbated. And the problem is even worse because our survey shows that tweens who are heavy multitaskers when using media are also heavy multitaskers when they are face-to-face: the cues may be present, but the kids are looking at irrelevant media.

What will the world look like as these emotionally weakened tweens grow up? A recent study by the Children’s Digital Media Center, at UCLA, suggests that in the past 10 years, benevolence and community feelings, grounded in emotion, have shifted from the most important to the least important values for tweens, while fame has leaped to the top of the list. Colleges will have to focus ever more effort on helping students build the resilience that comes from a confident familiarity with a range of emotions, a key to academic success. As tweens grow and enter the workplace, many will inevitably violate what Stanford management science and engineering professor Robert Sutton calls his “no asshole rule” — neither managers nor workers should be allowed to make anyone feel badly about themselves — leading to reduced productivity and work satisfaction. The idea of marriage as an opportunity to spend a lifetime together face-to-face might become torturous as the couple fail again and again to read each other’s emotions and cannot manage the negative times that are inevitable in a life together.

A potential caveat in this interpretation is the problem of causality — the bane of survey research. One could argue that online interaction versus in-person interaction is a consequence rather than a cause: the tweens’ level of social and emotional development guides their choice of interaction. We can partially rule this out because there is no correlation between online and face-to-face use: if the choice was a trade-off based on social development, you’d expect that the more time they spent online, the less they’d spend face-to-face. But there is no such pattern. Also, our conclusions are based on statistical techniques that account for the effect of face-to-face interactions before looking at media use. Of course, as in all surveys taken at one time, variables that haven’t been studied could be driving the results, but I think that the idea that online interactions, multitasking, and face-to-face interactions all influence tweens’ social and emotional development is an important explanation of the trends we are seeing.

New technologies have made it possible to dramatically increase everyone’s “book smarts” (although that information rarely comes from books anymore) by making it much easier to obtain and gather information, but it is generally understood that intellectual development comes only through practice and hard work. Unfortunately, when it comes to emotional intelligence — which is a much better predictor of happy marriages, winning friends, influencing people, and even financial and academic success — tweens and teens have been seduced into thinking that new technologies obviate the need for the hard work required to develop healthy social skills.

Technology cannot provide a sentimental education. Adults must go back to saying, “look me in the eye when I speak to you” — a phrase that has virtually vanished from the lexicon — and to having serious talks about the depth and breadth of emotional life. And if that sounds scarier than talking about sex, then you, too, are probably spending too much time online.

This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “The Keyboard and the Damage Done.”

Clifford Nass
Clifford Nass has been a professor at Stanford University since 1986. His primary appointment is in Communication. Nass is the author of over 125 academic papers and three books. His most recent book, "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships," came out in 2010.

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