This week we continue with Mind Change, reading chapters 9 through 14.
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Susan Greenfield spends a considerable amount of time discussing what she presents as a link between Internet use and the development of autism. She blames TV and Internet use for an increase in the rate of autism diagnoses, and urges the reader “[not to] dismiss . . . that there are triggers in the environment, such as prolonged and early exposure to the world of the screen[.]” Lastly, she claims that humans have “an evolutionary mandate to adapt . . . one result might be the development of autistic-like difficulties with empathy.
Dr. Greenfield’s purported link between autism and Internet use is at best pseudoscience, at worst a cheap attempt to drive book sales by creating an artificial controversy.
Dr. Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford and a colleague of Greenfield, wrote a detailed response lambasting Greenfield’s claims about autism on her blog(1). Bishop points out that the spike in autism diagnoses occurred before the mass proliferation of the Internet. Bishop then raises the point that the majority of autism diagnoses occur before age 2– before a child has started using social networking websites. In a separate post (2), Bishop discredits the majority of Greenfield’s “reading list”(on Greenfield’s website) of supposedly credible research materials.
Greenfield’s illustration of Facebook as primarily a portal of self-publication is as misguided as Andrew Keen’s statement that “the YouTube generation are more interested in self-expression than in learning about the world” (7). Most of my friends check Facebook to read and send messages between friends, which have an exclusive audience. We maintain our profiles, making sure nobody’s posting photos of us kicking toddlers, as a way of checking our public image, but we don’t actively promote some version of ourselves. I rarely express myself publicly on Facebook. Greenfield says that “alternative and still popular forms of computer-mediated communication, such as emails or Skype, are effective and easy for communication over long distances. So connecting with friends cannot, on its own, account for the appeal of cybersocializing” (98). But for me at least, connecting with friends accounts for about 100% of the appeal of cybersocializing. Before Facebook, I was a prolific AIM user, and I migrated because my friends migrated. The appeal of Facebook was that it offered other features: a shared place to view photos of trips taken with friends, a way to remember everyone’s birthday, and a way to discover funny or interesting internet content, not necessarily from friends. None of these are necessarily modes of self-expression, and I think there are many people who find use beyond self-expression. Of course, I have several friends who express themselves on Facebook more than in person, but I think they’re the outlier, not the norm.
In chapter ten of her book, Greenfield briefly discusses anonymity in the internet, and how that may have been one of the reasons so many people were drawn to it originally “this potential for anonymity allowed individuals to discover their repressed identities and learn more about themselves.” She later goes on to say that this is no longer the case, with the growth of social networks. I would like to elaborate a bit on that point, and hopefully show how anonymity is still relevant.
I have always seen the anonymity of the internet as a great equalizer. Just like the popular meme that shows a dog at a computer with the text “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” many people are drawn to the internet because it erases everything that they are in real life, and levels the playing fields. It doesn’t matter whether you’re popular or not in real life; online, you could be anybody.
As Greenfield touches on, as well, this is one of the driving forces behind online gaming, but I would like to emphasize the importance of anonymity here as well. It doesn’t matter if you are athletic in real life, or if you struggle to run a twenty minute mile; online, on a call of duty forum, the only thing that matters is your skill level. But almost more importantly, nobody knows who you are in real life, so they do not go into the experience with preconceived notions about you.
Greenfield dedicates a large portion of Chapter 12 to talking about cyberbullying. She mentions in earlier chapters how social networking through technology leads to a “sanitized form of communication”, through which it is more difficult to empathize with others. An extreme example of this is virtual witch hunts, which have not yet been mentioned in her book.
Take the story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who spoke at a conference in Seoul. Hunt made a joke, albeit one in poor taste, which, within the context of his greater speech was quite clearly a joke (1). However, a vicious cyber manhunt on Twitter led UCL to remove him from his academic posts, effectively ending his scientific career, all without being asked his side of affairs (2).
Many other similar accounts of social media mobs have lead to people getting fired or receiving death threats, often due to stories taken out of context or because of mistakes — a slip of the tongue, an off day (3). Other mobs form merely out of prejudice, such as in the online harassment of women gamers (death and rape threats), which happen simply because of gender (4).
The size of the audience, as well as the speed at which information can proliferate allows Twitter to be a fantastic platform to raise awareness for humanitarian causes, politics, and more (especially through hashtags). However, it can also showcase the terrifying consequences of lack of empathy, mob mentality, and anonymity (people displaying their sexism, racism, etc. “safely”).
In Chapter 10, Greenfield argues that social networking use has dangerous implications for self-esteem and sense-of-self. I will elaborate on this claim by discussing the consequences of seeking acceptance online for individuals with unhealthy, stigmatized tendencies.
The anonymity and physical distance of the Internet provides the perfect haven for marginalized communities such as eating disorder sufferers and pro-suicide groups (1). In this virtual space, members of stigmatized populations may come together and encourage the dangerous behaviors and mindsets that define their group. These communities were previously formed in treatment or recovery environments, where the unhealthy habit is regarded as a disorder instead of a lifestyle choice. Virtual acceptance from like people validates damaging attitudes and can delay seeking treatment. Furthermore, as Greenfield notes, rooting identity in online social networks can lower self-esteem and thus, inspire even greater desire to connect without the pressure of face-to-face interaction.
In order to maintain membership and influence in these online arenas, members must continue the behavior, promote its continuation in others, and foster a disinterest in medical attention (2). This kind of activity is especially dangerous for pro-anorexic or pro-suicide groups, where the condition is already associated with low self-esteem. To establish credibility and secure group acceptance and membership, participants will demonstrate authenticity by methods such as posting pictures. In the pro-anorexia online community, this can encourage envy of other users’ weight loss and increase feelings of inadequacy in the same arena where they seek approval.
Greenfield begins Chapter 13 with “there’s no point in having fun. But surely that is the point,” and explains by describing the hidden benefits of games and play, such as practicing tactile and social skills, staying physically fit, etc. (151). One argument throughout the chapter is that video games typically do not foster useful skills associated with real-life games, but instead function as an end-in-themselves, which can result in a sort of unfulfilling addiction.
This opinion is backed by evidence, such as Demetrovics et al.’s study listing the highest incentives of gaming as achievement, escapism, and socialization (153). However, I think it’s important to realize that a group of third graders would give similar answers when asked their incentive for playing freeze tag or hide-and-seek; they certainly wouldn’t answer “long-term spatial reasoning and planning skills.” In other words, I fail to see a significant difference between real-life games and video games, at least in regard to incentive/purpose.
Additionally, video games serve an important purpose that Greenfield overlooks while criticizing their effects on real-world socialization, and that is virtual socialization. I think gaming is essential for one to learn how to interact with others in virtual space, which is obviously where the social world is moving toward. For example, in the near future, an adult who refuses to engage in virtual socialization will be just as impaired as a teenager who refuses to engage in non-virtual socialization.
Initially in the book, Greenfield discusses self-identity and the Hard Problem of consciousness – what does the subjective experience of being you feel like? My question before reading chapters 9-14 was, how will Greenfield tie this big question of subjective experience to the theory of digital technologies influencing Mind Change? Greenfield effectively begins to answer this by first reminding the reader of her defined constraints on identity: “as far as the brain is concerned, it is impossible to disentangle identity from environment and context, as we’ve seen” (122). Prior to the digital era, the “adult mind was a product of a dialogue between environment and self, and this dialogue allowed for pauses, self-reflection, and the slow…development of a robust internal narrative” (128). Now, Greenfield points out that technologies, with specific reference to social media use, has created “a scenario that displaces a robust inner sense of identity in favor of one that is externally constructed and driven” (128), and it’s easy to “adopt a completely different persona” (144). When extended time on social media creates narcissism and influences a person’s relationships and ability to empathize, it is certainly evident the impact that the social and environmental context of social networking can have on self-identity. Furthermore, Greenfield illustrates clearly how video games affect the concept of the self. “They are literally exploring a new identity for themselves in this game world,” (164) through choosing an idealized avatar to play as. Constant meaningless engagement could also “jeopardize…any significance” one sees in oneself (166).
Greenfield spends much of chapter 9 ‘The Something About Social Networking’ discussing the immense popularity of social networking websites, mainly Facebook. She brings up research from Dr. Susan Weinschenk which hints at the fact that “the posting and receiving of entries on Facebook or Twitter could trigger the release of small blips of dopamine…” (107). In other words, Facebook is a drug.
I, like many others, I presume, have felt this. While it embarrasses me to admit it there was a time when I would post on Facebook at only certain times of the day in order to maximize the number of likes I would receive. This is very unlike me. I have always been one to shy away from sharing intimate personal details of my life, but for some reason everytime I received a ‘Like’ from someone in my social graph it felt like a rush of excitement — and it only left me wanting more. One of the keys behind a dopaminergic response is unpredictability (1). When something happens that isn’t quite predictable dopamine is released. This plays precisely into the context of ‘Likes’ and notifications on Facebook. We do not know when we will receive a like or who performed it. This sense of mystery fuels the excitement and subsequent addiction to the platform. It is truly remarkable that physiological systems rooted in our evolutionary past are fueling our need for completely new technologies.
In Chapter 9, Greenfield discusses the sense of privacy, and says “until now, most of us most of the time have felt in control of our private lives, of how much we confide, to whom and when. But now, such assumptions no longer hold” (113). When I read this the first time, I read it negatively. Then, I tried to think if losing this kind of control is ever a good thing? I immediately began to think about the news industry. For the most part, the news industry has had immense control over the “private life” of our country. Recently, a rise of social media activists have begun to leverage platforms such as Twitter to rid the news industry of having that privilege of control. It has completely reshaped how our youth is interacting with news they previously might not have heard or avoided listening to. Some questions that come to mind were what will be the impact of national “privacy” that was never captured on the news have on our youth? Will it create more divisions between different groups of people or unite them? Now bringing it back to Greenfield’s example of an individual’s private life, are there any ways in which losing that control can be positive? For example, if someone (not you) shares about the death of a loved one of yours, can that be positive in the sense that it will bring you the support you might need?
While I found components of Greenfield’s analysis of video gaming quite interesting, the extent to which she generalizes about videogames gives me some doubt about whether her conclusions apply to the entire genre or merely to a subset of games.
Many of the videogames today emphasize less violence and more creativity, construction, and collaboration. For example, Minecraft, by far the most popular title in recent years, allows for elaborate and impossible construction with friends. While some of Greenfield’s points about instant gratification could still hold with Minecraft (you can dig a hole or build a house in a minute that would take a year to build in real life), presumably she would be forced to accept that the use of creative aspects of the game potentially bolster real-world creativity as well.
I wonder, too, about whether the human attention span has naturally gone down as time has passed. When early humans led a hunting/gathering society, it seems an unfathomably long attention span would have been necessary to be effective. If this assumption is correct (there seems very little literature on the subject), videogames might just be expediting the inevitable rather than starting a novel modern phenomenon.
There seem to be legitimate reasons to be concerned about what violent videogames do to the mind (2), but I again find myself unconvinced that there aren’t accompanying positives with many games that make the mind “change” seem a little less disastrous.
In this week’s chapters, Greenfield starts talking about behavioral patterns that are too new for most of academia to have studied and understood well. Her opinion is clear and her science is solid, there is no denying that there are cognitive effects to such indulgence in these technologies. It is also clear that this is an ongoing discussion, and if anything, the results are evidence of poor usage of technology, but not necessarily a downside to the technology itself.
I am particularly struck at how bad multimedia multitasking is for concentration. Prof. Cliff Nass, the late Resident Fellow of Otero, my freshman dorm, was passionate about the effects of multitasking. His results were very clear, and he was not shy at all in sharing his opinions, it needs to stop. It destroys emotional intelligence, decreases concentration, and does nontrivial damage to our attention span.
What I hope to find out in the rest of the book, however, is how do we use these technologies (that clearly have the power to affect our cognition) to enhance our mental functions? I can’t imagine a world where concentration is not valuable, and currently, technologies are making it harder to concentrate. So how do we leverage multimedia screen entertainment to make us more intelligent, more creative, and more wise? How do we revert the current path, which is just widening the pipe for consumption?
I really enjoyed the next 5 chapters of Mind Change but have some concerns. Firstly, Greenfield points to research categorizes babies as “secure”, “anxious” or “avoidant” and then associates these characteristics to adults as well. She then shows research that people with high levels of anxious attachment used Facebook more frequently. I have an alternative theory however – that it is very hard to categorize people into three simple groups and that rather, at different points we flit between being secure, anxioius and avoidant. For instance, when we are in a group of old friends over dinner, we rarely check our Facebook. However, when we are at a party where we don’t really know anyone, we always have a phone out and Facebook open just to get social recognition that way.
I also disagree with her reasoning that we share more online is because in person we see defensive body language in conversations with people. I don’t think that Facebook is as simple as a conversation between two people. Furthermore, people don’t mind sharing on Facebook, because it enables many more multi-way conversations with people who are interested in seeing a person share things about themselves.
Lastly, I enjoyed reading more about dopamine in the brain, especially with regards to how video gaming produces similar effects in the brain as gambling and drugs. We all have friends addicted to games and as a society don’t place enough importance on how bad it can be.
Susan Greenfield discusses the links between gambling addiction and video game addiction in Chapter 13 of Mind Change. There exists additional research to link the neuroscientific response to gambling with social media as well, which only further illustrates Greenfield’s points about the frightening reactions in the brain to technological usage.
Tristan Harris, an Ethics Designer and Product Philosopher at Google, came to speak with the Symbolic Systems department last Fall and presented research on the brain’s response to social media usage, specifically on a mobile platform. Research shows that the action of pulling down on a screen to “refresh” the page or skim down – whether that be a Facebook newsfeed, an Instagram photo stream, or a Snapchat inbox – activates the same areas of the brain as the process of pulling down on a lever to use a slot machine. The ideological similarity makes sense: it is a game of chance whether or not you will find something new that piques your interest, and you are gambling away time by sifting through meaningless posts and messages to seek out the thrill of finding engaging material in a friend’s “wall post” or shared link.
The existence of such a position – designer of ethical technological interface – speaks to a need in the general technology-using population to be saved from these psychology traps that are precisely intended to addict them to web interfaces. It is the onus of the tech-giants in our society to create effective web spaces that remain healthy.
While I respect that (i) Greenfield is an academic, (ii) the point of this book is not necessarily to engage in a “Gotcha!” style critique of technology in our lives and (iii) there is not adequate data to yet determine what kind of long-term influences technology will have, Ch. 9-14 have a noticeable lack of concrete assertions that technology does have lasting negative effects.
The discussion of social networks, for example, boiled down to a loose back-and-forth of studies that both reinforce and challenge that technology is good or bad. In Ch. 10 she posits that for certain people Facebook is beneficial while for others it is detrimental – the only determining factor is active engagement and self-regulation. This same assertion could be applied to infinite things: I eat junk food and junk food also triggers certain neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that can make it addictive, yet I am not obese. Likewise for gambling, drinking alcohol, tobacco products, etc. What I am trying to get at is that the scope of the information she presents is just too limited for me, a reader and Digital Native, to draw any meaningful conclusions other than common sense intuitions about how to interact with addictive stimuli. I have this sense that there are demographical, historical, and economical forces at play in how we interact with technology that could do a better job of tying Greenfield’s argument together, but we get no such perspective. We are just fed a stream of conflicting micro-experiments without an abstract thesis to tie them together. Granted, we have yet to finish the book, but this week’s reading felt like an information overload without a theory to reduce the disjoints.
Some topics I’d like explored:
-is our interaction with digital technology a chicken or egg phenomenon? Is it possible that global phenomena like a population boom, aging global demographics, or any other factor produces a demand for things like social media or video game addiction, rather than their addictive natures themselves?
-why do countries like Japan, that have larger proportions of their populations connected to the Internet, suffer less social media addiction than countries like the US and the UK? Clearly there are forces at play here other than the amount of dopamine a substance can release
-how did society react to the proliferation of the telephone? Was it alarming that people would spend hours a day on the phone, say, for work? Was there similar backlash?
Chapters 9 through 12 deal with social networking and its effect on the mind of the population, particularly among adolscents. Like the preceding eight chapters, Greenfield reserves the majority of her writing exploring the potential ill-effects of social networking, particularly facebook. Greenfield cites mostly smaller studies that show social networks to be well-correlated to or complicit in lowering self-esteem, compromising self-identity, addiction, shallowness, divorce, marital fueds, ‘slacktivism’, the “destruction” of the notion of privacy, overstimulation, and cyberbullying, among other nasties. To her credit, Greenfield’s explorations are well-cited with peer-reviewed scientific studies.
For a book that deals with mind change brought around by technology, though, I feel like there is a lot more ground to be covered. It is undoubtedly true that social networks have a profound impact on the way we interact with the world around us. Yet after reading chapters 9 through 12, the uninformed reader would remain none the wiser as to the effect social media has had on real-life friend graphs, or how the ability to communicated long-distance in a frictionless fashion modifies the scope of our (real) social network. Also unexplored is the great democratising effect that universal access to social information has had on the billion people that use social networks daily, as well as social media’s effect on the way that news is consumed and produced. I would have appreciated further examination of what one could construe to be the ‘positive’ impact of social media, rather than only focusing on smaller studies that demonstrate correlation, not causation.
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