Sunday, April 10, 2011

Commentary: Berkman Center Study on Teen Internet Addiction

Commentary: The Berkman Center for Internet and Society's research on youth and media.
In reviewing the research by the Berkman Center at Harvard University I was surprised to learn there is a disconnect between the fears and concerns adults have regarding youth media practices and the research/science on the consequences of youth media practices.
Overall, the researchers at the Berkman Center have a positive and optimistic view of the future of the relationship between youth and media/technology. The opportunities for the development of skills, both technical and interpersonal, is emphasized throughout their research. Rather than view the Internet and social media as inherently dangerous or inherently useless/mindless, the research on youth media patterns and practices suggests otherwise. Research is clear youth are far more interested in creating meaningful content, in sharing and communicating, in maintaining privacy, in maintaining their own safety on the Internet, and in protecting their reputations than adults believe.
The differences that exist between youth (or "digital natives") and adults (or "digital immigrants") is significant and constantly changing and evolving. The typical parent/ adult is skeptical and fearful of the transformations in the media landscape. Adults are concerned children and teens are being stalked by cyber predators, are sending personal and confidential information out into cyberspace indiscriminately, and wasting time mindlessly chatting, surfing, and instant messaging and texting.
It is surprising to learn research studies do not show an increase in overall predatory behavior as a result of the expansion of media use by young people. The youth who are most at risk online are those who are most at risk off-line, such as victims of sexual and physical abuse and children from impoverished or unstable homes. Furthermore, youth are far more likely to engage in dangerous or risky behavior with other youth rather than with predatory adults. Although cyber bullying certainly occurs, youth are far more concerned with bullying that occurs at school and feel that they are more vulnerable to and affected by face to face or three-dimensional bullying that occurs at school or another community settings. The bottom line from the Berkman Center is the Internet is safer and has a far more positive influence on youth then parents/adults understand and beleive.
With all of this said, there are important issues the Berkman Center study does not address: namely, the way in which new technologies can take over the lives of youth and produce changes in the way youth process information, particularly the level at which they can maintain their attention.
Dalton Conley, a social biologists, is one of many scientists who are analyzing the way in which youth are affected by constant their "connectivity" to multiple technologies. Conley suggests, in an article in the February 21, 2011 edition of Time magazine, that "scientific evidence increasingly suggests that, amid all the texting, poking and surfing, our children's digital lives are turning them into much different creatures from us-- and not necessarily for the better."
Conley points to the problem of what researchers now refer to as "continuous partial attention." A Kaiser Family Foundation report released in 2010 found that on average children ages 8 to 18 are spending seven hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media. If each content stream is counted separately, a majority of American youth are texting while watching TV, they are logging almost 11 hours of media usage per day.
Conley, citing research from Stanford University, states that one of the concerns about youth involvement in multiple media is that they experience a high degree of pleasure while engaged with media/technology -- due to the fact interaction with technology/media releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for creating pleasurable states in the brain. The experience of pleasure creates a “forward-feeding cycle” in which youth pay more and more attention to texts, instant messaging, posts on social media sites at the expense of their ability to sustain their focus on writing, reading, or engaging in problem solving that requires sustained attention.
Conley also points to a problem with the way teens utilize media and electronic communication, and that is they often have access to their smart phones, computers, etc.,  seven days a week, twenty four hours per day. As a result, many youth are sleep deprived and do not have downtime or private time to think and process what occurred during the course of the day. The constant connectivity deprives youth of the ability to be alone, to make use of time when they are alone, and to be able to disconnect and digest social experiences.
Another concern  I have with current media practices, including video gaming, is that children and teens whom have pre-existing social-emotional problem are far more likely to become compulsively involved in the use of media. Children and teens who lack appropriate social skills, who feel disconnected and alienated from their peer group, who are unable to initiate and sustain relationships, receive very little (or any) true benefit from their relationship to media/technology. In fact, many youth would benefit from being in an environment where they were completely "unplugged" from all and every form of electronic entertainment and media access.
Understandably, for many families with children/teens with special needs, the computer, video games, and other technology are perceived as an essential part of their involvement or connection to the world. Although youth with special needs are certainly drawn to media and technology, it is not the case this involvement is essential or important. The problem for many parents is when they consider limiting access to media and technology, they are confronted with a daunting problem: what will they do with their child/teen instead?
There is no question unplugging children/teens from electronic entertainment and social media will result in protests, complaints, and possibly tantrums -- while shifting responsibility to structure and plan leisure and recreation to parents -- which seem to be an impossible challenge to successfully navigate.
However, the conflict and rough terrain that lies ahead for parents who choose to significantly limit or eliminate access to electronic entertainment and social media is worth the effort, as it provides children/teens with social-emotional deficits the opportunity to live in reality and to become competent in reality, instead of living in perpetual fantasy. The ongoing involvement in fantasy via virtual reality is proving to be a major obstacle to social and vocational development that needs to addressed head on. 

Advice: don't waste time! 

Unplug and begin to create new experiences of pleasure and satisfaction separate and apart from technology.

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