V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
The re-wired generation

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers May, 2009.

Part 1 in a 3-day series

Depending on who you talk to, we are bringing up either the dumbest generation of youth or the smartest.

They are simultaneously the most narcissistic and coddled of generations, and the most civically engaged, altruistic wave of kids in decades.

It's a schoolyard fight that has divided experts into two camps: Those who believe online social networking sites such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook are perpetuating the most socially awkward, aloof and apathetic of generations, and those who say we're rearing collaborative, masters of communications, who will rise above all others.

Public perception sways depending on the headline of the week or the most bellicose of voices. Earlier this year, that voice belonged to a world-renown neuroscientist who rang alarms bells the world over for her doomsday prophecies on the perils of social networking. Lady Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University professor and Britain's celebrity brain scientist, told the House of Lords in London that online networking sites are "infantilizing" our brains.

Her prognosis was grim: The mid-21st century mind can be characterized by short attention spans, is sensationalist, incapable of empathy and has a shaky sense of identity.

Young brains belonging to what experts have coined digital natives, have become accustomed to a world of "fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key."

Greenfield's assertions have attracted a storm of criticism from experts who describe her statements as alarmist, hypothetical musings uttered out loud.

But it all begs the questions: Are online networking habits really rewiring our brains?

Though little research has been done on the neurological impacts of online social activity, one UCLA neuroscientist has been able to confirm that the brain on Google fires on all cylinders when surfing the Internet compared to the passive activity of reading a book.

"What we found was that there is more than a two-fold increase in activity throughout the brain," said Dr. Gary Small, author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

"Every (part of the brain) is engaged, especially the frontal lobe, or the thinking brain where we make decisions."

The brain is a sensitive, malleable organ, constantly rewiring itself When an adolescent spends on average nine hours a day using the latest technologies, the neurological imprint is bound to leave an indelible mark.

Digital natives are also often touted as master multitaskers, able to work seamlessly on five things at once.

It's just one of the reasons Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, calls this the smartest of generations.

"The most important variable that shapes the human brain during adolescence is how they're spending their time."

Baby boomers, for instance, grew up watching hours of TV -- a passive, solitary activity.

"If you spend a similar amount of time online interacting, collecting, reading, reasoning, authenticating, remembering things, developing strategies, that affects the brain as well," he said. "Kids have more appropriate brains for the 21st century."

To illustrate his point, Tapscott points out that the top tier of the net generation -- which in Canada numbers eight million -- is "smarter than ever."

"They have the the highest IQs, best SAT scores, and are graduating more than ever before from universities," he said.

Indeed, during the last century, scientists have been recording a pattern of sharply rising IQ scores around the industrialized world, a trend dubbed the Flynn effect after the man who discovered it, James Flynn. But earlier this year, the New Zealand psychologist revealed a curious break with the trend, telling Britons the IQ scores of their teenage population had dropped by more than two points between 1980 and 2008, and by an average of six points compared to test scores 28 years ago.

Enter Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, a counterpoint to Tapscott's book which ennobles a much maligned generation.

In one long dressing down that ends in lamenting for the grim, intellectual future of America, Bauerlein scolds this generation, calling them appallingly ignorant, lazy, illiterate and incapable of original thought.

Instead of storing information, youth use the Internet as a convenient "delivery system," Bauerlein says, retrieving material with minimum effort and passing it along.

It's akin to phone numbers. With the advent of cellphones and Blackberrys, there's little need to memorize phone numbers when they're accessible with a single touch of a button.

But what's more important, Small asks: Remembering a phone number or knowing where and how to retrieve the information you're looking for?

"People can now pick and choose what we commit to memory," he said. "We don't need to remember phone numbers anymore. But we do need to remember strategies for searching online and strategies for using different programs on the computer."

So, what's Small's brainiac verdict?

"In some ways, they're smarter and in some ways they're not. In terms of technological skills, they're brilliant," he says. "When it comes to human contact, I don't know what's going on, it remains to be seen."

That's because the frontal lobes of the adolescent brain are underdeveloped -- the part of the brain that also houses complex reasoning skills and the ability to empathize. Critics charge reduced face time erodes children's ability to recognize emotional expressions, understand body language and look for non-verbal cues.

Psychiatrist Dr. Himanshu Tyagi also warned the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England the net generation attaches different meanings to relationships.

"It's a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile ... in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable," he said. "People used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating."

But it's a chorus that Barry Wellman describes as scientifically unfounded hogwash.

Far from replacing face to face time and breeding a generation of reclusives, Facebook and Twitter are actually enhancing interpersonal relationships offline, said the University of Toronto sociology professor. Wellman has been studying the impacts of social networking sites since 1998 and is an authority as both the director of the university's NetLab centre and senior fellow for the Pew Internet and Society Project.

It's become a tired and "annoying" fallacy that Facebook and MySpace are diminishing kids' interpersonal skills, he says, as his research points to the contrary.

"The Internet is complementing, continuing and maintains relationships," he said. "It's letting weaker relationships stay in contact."

Teens who part ways after high school use networking sites to keep in touch, while long distance relationships are being sustained, he said.

Neuroscientist Alain Dagher agrees. While conceivable that underdeveloped parts of the brain could atrophy with little use, it would only be dysfunctional in extreme cases where a child is reared in social isolation, he said.

"It's difficult to believe this could happen in a normal child who uses the computer because they're still going to school and living with their families," said the Montreal scientist.

Networks such as Twitter are "quick cocktail parties," Wellman adds, where users can exchange digests of information. In his case, Wellman announces his latest papers on Twitter to drive up readership.

"The overall volume of communication is going up, the overall velocity of communication is going up. For better or worse, we can get back and forth to each other a lot faster than we used to. This is making people a lot more skilled in how they communicate."

But is posting pictures of ourselves on a forum that immortalizes its subjects a form of communication or a manifestation of our collective narcissism?

According to University of Georgia study, the number of Facebook friends and wallposts people have on their profile pages correlates with narcissistic tendencies. The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that narcissists are more likely to choose a glamorous, self-promoting photo as their profile picture and tend to have more Facebook friends. Narcissists also use both the networks and relationships for self promotion, placing importance on quantity over quality.

In a pronouncement that spurred the headline How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer in London's Daily Mail, meanwhile, one psychologist said increasing use of online social networking sites could alter the way our genes work, upsetting immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries and mental performance. All of which Dr. Aric Sigman says, could lead to cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia in the study published by the journal Biology.

But Dr. Carrie Lionberg doesn't buy it. In fact, the Winnipeg-based psychologist and professor at the University of Manitoba went so far as to say Facebook prolongs lifespans.

"On face value, social networking sites will increase health because they build social connections," she said. "Staying connected increases quality of life, broadens people's experiences and decreases loneliness."

It's only problematic if the user is depressed, she said.

"I see it as an overall positive thing."

It's an ancient ritual for older generations to bemoan the current wave of adolescents as the most morally bankrupt and idle, whilst upholding their own age group as the beacon of scruples. But this time round, there's a major difference, Tapscott said,

"This is the first time in history where young people know more about the most important thing that's happening, that's changing every institution throughout the world than adults. Students know more than their teachers," he said.

---

Do you have texter's thumb?

Doctors in New Zealand were the first to slap a medical term to the painful phenomenon associated with excessive text messaging, after treating a 20-year-old student for increasing pain and tenderness in the thumb area in 2007.

It's called texting tenosynovitis, and is becoming increasingly common, especially among children and teens, reads a report published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

During a three-month period, a right-handed dental student had been using her cellphone to send 2,500 texts a month, each consisting of about 150 characters, at a speed of about four characters per second using her right thumb.

She learned to text with her other hand, but has since developed similar symptoms in left thumb.

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