The Information Age has revolutionised the way that people communicate.
For adults, it’s mostly about digital shortcuts – a quick SMS or Facebook message is usually about saving time. But with today’s kids as digital natives, experts warn that an overuse of technology affects the brain and can rewrite neural pathways in a different way to how they would normally develop.
Of more concern is that experts say they’re finding that people communicate more often with family and friends because of technology, but the quality of that communication may be weaker. Kids who spend more time engaging with a screen than with other kids or adults can struggle to understand emotion, create strong relationships or become more dependent on others.
Is digital technology the enemy?
University of Canterbury associate professor and head of media and communication department Dr Linda-Jean Kenix says not necessarily.
“The thing with all of this research looking at kids and digital technology is that we just don’t know and we won’t know for decades,” she told Family Times. “At a minimum they’re simply more comfortable communicating on screen but it’s not such a simple shift.”
Communication has changed for everyone
Communication has changed for adults as well as kids.
The number of interactions that we have as a human race is going down. Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone in 2000, bemoaning the collapse of American society due in great part to television. Kenix says that’s phenomenally escalated with the advent of digital devices, screens and social media.
“We have far less friends than we used to have. Kids do. If you ask an average kid how many friends they have that number has declined over time. But the thing is, how to measure the depth of those friendships; quantity or quality? Saying you have 20 friends, is that a good thing when they’re all a centimetre thick?”
The ubiquity of media
The trouble is, media is so prevalent. Kenix described it as a fish in water: it doesn’t know it’s in water because it’s all around them.
“For humans, with media in many ways – certainly in Western developed societies – we’ve reached that level of saturation.”
Adults who have grown up before the digital age use and engage with technology in a different way to today’s fledgling digital natives. Adults are more aware that they’re dealing with a screen, she said, and see it as an interaction between two humans. But for children growing up connected to devices, that artifice dissolves in a way that Kenix said was fascinating, intriguing and concerning all the same time.
Research shows that the constant use of digital communication is changing neural pathways in kids. It affects concentration, self-esteem, and in many cases, personal relationships. In some cases kids have been seen to lose empathy or not develop the sympathetic and empathetic skills that they need.
On the other hand, some kids who are more introverted communicate more readily digitally than they would in person. So although the research is compelling, Kenix said that our brains are constantly evolving and the positives and negatives would take some time to tell.
For more on kids and tech, visit our tech section.