In developing a unit on the effects of technology on adolescents, I felt that it was imperative to examine some of the psychological research that has already been done in this area. I wanted to examine scientific studies that revealed important and perhaps damaging effects of Internet addiction, overuse, or misuse. I needed to understand psychologically my students' attachments to technology. I needed this before my team could possibly teach our students to be mindful natives of a technological world. I wanted to construct the conversation around solid research. I found that nuts-and-bolts science is very impressive to teenagers who both rely on their phones, yet also sense the dark side to them. Research into the effects of technology on our social and personal lives has expanded exponentially along with usage. The explosion of smart phones has come so quickly, it is difficult for researchers to keep up, and many studies offer cautions that further studies need to be done. How do we measure something that keeps shifting shape? The Protean aspects of communication technologies and the colossal impact these have on every aspect of our lives make some editorial commentaries sound apocalyptic indeed.
Primarily as educators, we need to know what questions to ask to help guide our students. I have focused on three basic areas of research on the impact of technology on issues regarding teenagers' lives, particularly in developing a sense of self, in developing relationships and belonging, and in doing productive work. These are critical areas of psychological and educational development for teenagers. Although certainly this list can be modified, my research suggests the following areas of inquiry:
- Know Yourself: Who are you when you post online?
- Internet Addiction: How is overuse of technology affecting learning and the ability to focus and to read text?
- Mindfulness: How is constant access to technology affecting our ability to relate to others, to develop memories of real events and to be in the moment instead of behind a screen?
Know Yourself: According to recent reports, having relationships on the Internet is not all bad news. For most people, the Internet is a place where it is easier to express one's "true" self, and while we do try to show ourselves in our best light, most of us don't idealize our persona online to something that is unreal. In our Internet relationships, however, we do tend to open up more and be more expressive and intimate in our conveyance of the dark and bright sides of our feelings, something that often doesn't happen in real-life meetings. In
Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,
Sherry Turkle explains that the anonymity of the Internet allows people to experiment with "self," expressing various personas, even different genders, to express facets of themselves without sanctions. The idea that we all normally possess multiple "selves" isn't new. Understanding these "selves" takes us back to the beginnings of philosophy. Lao Tzu, the originator of Taoism, which dates back to the 6
century BCE in China, said in his
Tao Te Ching
, "Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing thy self is enlightenment."
In "Can You See the Real Me?" recent study of how we portray ourselves on the Internet, John A. Bargh, Katelyn Y. A. Mckenna, and Grainne M. Fitzsimons at New York University, explain that on the Internet, because you feel free to be whoever you want, you are more apt to disclose more of your inner self to someone you don't know well. When someone responds positively, your self-concept is validated, and this creates empathic bonds between you and your Internet friend that can be very strong. The more self-disclosure, the closer you feel to someone, and the Internet is a place where often relationships get very intense, very quickly. The basic need to have others see us as we would like to be seen is, psychologically, a very strong force. Often this view of our inner self is
validated by those close to us in our real lives. For many who might be alienated from their own families or communities, for issues such as gender identity or cultural differences, finding an accepting place on the Internet is helpful in developing a healthy sense of self. Teenagers who are developmentally building their identities are especially attracted to this aspect of Internet relationships. In this way, the Internet can be seen as a positive force in the development of self and development of strong relationships. In the study by Bargh and his colleagues, this proved to be the case. Participants were much less willing to disclose their true selves to people in face-to-face meetings than in meetings on the Internet. In face-to-face meetings, most people will wear their public masks. What the experiment also showed, however, was that when forming an attachment to someone online, we have a strong tendency to project onto that person our own idealized and desired attributes: we impose onto our Internet friend qualities that we like and want him or her to have. This almost never happens in face-to-face relationships, where the physical presence of the other person provides a barrier to this kind of fantasy. Aspects of the real person's appearance and other qualities of his or her persona inhibit most of us from reformatting someone to our own liking.
So while you might like someone more at first over the Internet and, indeed, create a strong bond quickly as your inner self is validated, you also tend
to see the other person's true character. When a feeling of closeness and intimacy builds feverishly, one should always be wary. Validation of self can be an incredibly seductive force, and when you in fact, don't really know the person who has given you this support, the result can be very dangerous as well.
In studies showing the importance of face-to-face contact to increasing a sense of empathy and connection, some researchers caution that interpersonal communication based in technology, including emails, texts, social media and chat rooms, impedes human relationships.
Others are more optimistic in crediting Internet connections with improving our ability to relate to each other in some cases.
With students, of course, cautioning how you portray yourself online is an important conversation. Also, any discussion with teenagers about online presence must be connected to the ubiquitous "selfie" and constant online self-promotion. In a class discussion one student observed that if you judge yourself by the comments of strangers, you should not be posting. Many agreed that those who worry too much about how many likes or negative comments they received had self-esteem issues. It seems this discussion is one that students have already had among peers, and also one worth having in a class lesson.
Internet Addiction: A lot of research has been done to examine the detrimental aspects of the overuse of technology, especially with the advent of cell phones. Teenagers in particular have a need to conform to the norms of the group, and with cell phones, this means a nearly constant need to be connected to one another to reaffirm common culture, as well as establish a sense of belonging and self-identity.
While there have been studies and, indeed, treatment centers set up to help people with true Internet addictions, most psychologists would hesitate to classify those reluctant to leave the house without their phones as "addicted." Most are looking at this phenomenon cautiously, as a "restructuring of social norms."
Understanding why phone usage is so important for teenagers helps teachers shape student awareness of the dangers of overuse. This is crucial for safety purposes as students begin driving, but also for reasons that bear on their ability to concentrate and study.
Increased use of technology does indeed impair our productivity and ability to learn. It decreases our attention spans,
creating a sense of boredom in the absence of multiple stimuli. And multitasking itself impedes our ability to focus and concentrate. Everything you do takes longer and is done less attentively when you multitask – even exercising!
You become forgetful and impatient,
and when your brain is constantly bombarded with information, you cannot learn effectively.
Overuse of technology interferes with sleep
and makes us far less productive and less smart than we were before we had all the knowledge of the human race at our fingertips.
Mindfulness: When we view our endless pictures, we take time from the moments we live. Who will ever view these photographic graveyards when we are dead, when those alive will be busy photographing – and not living – their own existences? Will we, in fact, exist only in the cyber-world of the near future, in idealized versions of ourselves? Perhaps the most cynical and disturbing fears about the affects of technology involve the dystopian prediction that we are all becoming mindless biomasses while Siri is poised to take over. This is not a new dystopian vision, of course. Mary Shelley's
, Stanley Kubrick's version of Arthur C. Clarke's
2001: A Space Odyssey
suffice as the start of a list of countless fictional warnings. I would like also to mention Vernor Vinge's famous lecture at NASA, "The Coming Technological Singularity,"
which predicts that the day we create artificial intelligence will be the beginning of the end for humanity. While perhaps we want to brush all this aside as science-fiction hysteria, I would like to share some news that came up in a class discussion – news about the
generation of technology natives, the baby brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews of my teenage students. Preverbal babies now are learning the access codes to the cell phones of their parents, older siblings, aunts and uncles, by observation. They go into the phones and know from observation how to swipe and how to find, download, and play games. They take selfies. In the most surprising account, one toddler who cannot yet talk learned how to cut and paste his name and now sends text-babble messages to my student with his name pasted in, his selfies attached! Another student began to worry that his three-year-old brother never talks to anyone, only plays with his tablet alone up in his room. No play dates. No nursery school.
There is a palpable disconnect with our own lives as we stare at a screen instead of into the eyes of those we love. There is research to back up fears of disturbing consequences: Much research has been done on the importance of eye contact as a way to diagnose often very serious psychological disorders such as autism,
and various other psychopathologies.
While these studies do not correlate between cell phone-using parents and psychological effects on children, one must wonder what happens when there is a lack of eye contact as people regard screens instead of children. In a lecture at Harvard, researcher Sherry Turkle expressed dismay at the apparent loss of real time in real life, and real human connections between modern humans, particularly young people.
Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other
, warns against the negative effects of technology in our lives.