When you sat at a school desk and recited your times tables over and over, when you wrote out the periodic table of elements, when you practiced cursive penmanship, you were reinforcing memories, creating familiar paths for synapses, literally rewiring your brain for top-down attention. Your children’s neural networks are very different. Thanks to their Internet exposure, in place of steady repetition, they’re confronted, daily, by a barrage of novelty. There’s no pattern, no order, in either the input or the pathways it carves. “You have kids today who start on computers at three, four, five,” says Penn’s Chatterjee. “The younger you’re exposed, the more influence that has on the final configuration of the brain.”
So the tech stuff isn’t benign, though kids think it is. And it’s been deliberately developed to make it hard for them to turn away. “The nature of addiction,” says Chatterjee, “is little rewards doled out in unpredictable fashion. The information kids are getting from texting or tweeting has that unpredictable quality. They don’t know what they’re going to get, and what they do get, they really like. It’s a set-up for addictive behavior.”
What kids don’t realize — what even we forget, as we hook up with old high-school buddies on Facebook — is that none of this is accidental. Big thinkers at big corporations dream this stuff up, test it, tweak it, perfect it, not to make it easier for us to find old friends, but to gather information about our behavior and make money off of it.
LAST JANUARY, a young Florida mother was trying to play FarmVille on Facebook, but her three-month-old son kept crying. So she shook him to death.
Stupidity is one thing. Inhumanity is another. Jake can look at his cell phone to see what day it is, but where can he go online to find out what being human means? The hours he spends on his computer result in less time studying with friends, or playing pickup basketball, or hanging at the football game. And online contact is fundamentally different from being with other people. We do things online — insult those we disagree with, bully the weak, mock the bereaved — we would never do in person. Kathleen Taylor, author of a book called Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, told the New York Times this spring: “We’re evolved to be face-to-face creatures. We developed to have constant feedback from others, telling us if it was okay to be saying what we’re saying. On the Internet, you get nothing, no body language, no gesture.” Without that feedback, we’re all starring in Lord of the Flies.
But we’re not just failing to engage with one another; we’re less and less willing to engage the world at large. Witness the Blue State/Red State fault lines: When we’re able to pick and choose our sources of information, when we subsist on a steady diet of what-I-already-believe, we don’t ever have to examine or alter our constructs. “If you want to have an educated citizenry,” educational assessment expert Norbert Elliot has said, “you’ve got to wrestle with complex ideas, or you will end up with people who will only do the shallowest things.” The erosion of top-down thinking, the inability to pay attention and stay focused, will affect how our children make crucial decisions. Their world may, in effect, be made flat again.