From the Head of England House

Twenty-First Century Screen Culture – Issues and Impacts

The backdrop was impressive. The rich and vibrant hues of the MacDonnell Ranges provided a majestic setting and traditional indigenous drumming welcomed us warmly to the heart of Australia. Alice Springs was the chosen venue for the 2010 AHISA Pastoral Care Conference. The conference theme—“Challenges and Solutions” informed us of an opportunity to learn together, to gain a deeper understanding of the matters that impact on us all and we were able to share this enriching experience in the rugged heart of our country.

In his keynote address Reverend Dr Richard Leonard presented some interesting statistics. Digital natives—born into a world of laptops and cell phones, text messaging and twittering—spend an average of 8.5 hours each day exposed to technology. Of that time, an average of 2.5 hours is spent using social networking sites. In 2009, a dynamic shift occurred —the first year of greater online time than television watching amongst our teenage population. These figures should not really surprise us. They simply affirm psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg’s notion of the “real wired child” (Carr-Gregg, 2007).

Technology presents society with a double edged sword. We embrace it for all the good it has to offer us. It enables connectedness, opens new worlds and raises our consciousness. It allows a space for the sharing of lives and stories. It provides an avenue for professionals and students to create networks and study circles. It has led to a renaissance of creativity and communication.

“Students using social networking sites are actually practising the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today. Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout. They’re also sharing creative, original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential.” (Greenhow, 2009)

Conversely, technology presents us with serious issues such as cyberbullying, identity theft and inappropriate disclosure. Overuse of this technology can lead to us becoming separated from other people, isolated from real human contact.

Research conducted by Stanford University has identified that overuse of technology is affecting brain development and that exposure to frequent computer use has the potential to rewire the brain’s neural circuitry. The notion of “use it or lose it” is not new. Up until the early 1970s, scientists believed that the brain was “hardwired” and that brain anatomy was fixed; changing only after childhood, when the aging process began. Scientists now know that the brain is ’plastic’ and capable of changing its structure with every activity it performs and perfects its circuits to better suit the tasks it performs. Furthermore, the more a particular path is used, the more ingrained it becomes. If a pathway is not used often, over time it will be usurped by other pathways that are branching out and requiring more space. Failure to use certain pathways results in us ‘losing’ them. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain that Changes Itself clearly discusses the plasticity of the brain and its ability to change neural pathways based on frequency of use. Dr Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA and author of the book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, presents similar thoughts: ‘The human brain is malleable, always changing in response to the environment. A young person’s brain, which is still developing, is particularly sensitive.’ (Small, 2008)

Small’s research has identified that technology use heightens skills such as multitasking, complex reasoning and decision making. These are all wonderful skills—skills that will enable our teenagers to achieve success as they progress into the adult world. Despite such positive outcomes, there are some negative impacts of screen culture that must be identified.

The concept of Continual Partial Attention (CPA) was coined in 1998 by Linda Stone, a researcher working at Microsoft. It had become apparent to her that many people employed in the technology industry worked with a split focus, tending to concentrate on one item while also receiving partial input from multiple other sources. CPA describes how many of us use our attention today. Stone suggests that the cause of CPA is a desire not to miss out on anything. It is motivated by a desire to connect and be connected—to scan for opportunity and optimise for the best opportunities, activities and contacts in any given moment.

“To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognised and to matter.” (Stone, 2008)

Some view CPA as positive, arguing that it increases flow and allows for more effective workplaces. Others feel that it can contribute to stressful lifestyles and stress-related health problems. Certainly in schools, CPA is being suggested as a probable reason for the shortened attention spans that we are now seeing in the students we teach. A degree of superficiality has developed. Translating that to our classrooms, we see students so busy keeping tabs on everything, they are finding it difficult to focus deeply on one thing.

Another concerning feature of CPA is that it inhibits the ability to accurately read facial expressions, a fundamental aspect of our social interactions. The ability to read facial expressions guides us as we communicate. It lays the foundation for empathy as our mirror systems focus and tune in to another person’s situation. Without this ability, our chance to nurture and build connectedness between ourselves and others is inhibited. In short, our relationships suffer.

Dr Susan Greenfield, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, has grave concerns over the impact of screen culture on teenage development and in particular, the fascination with social networking. While her thoughts might appear to some extent, alarmist, they are still worth considering. Her concern is not that people use technology from time to time. Screen culture is, to a certain extent, a part of everybody’s life. Her concern lies with those people who do little else, who view the world through the culture of such applications as Facebook. She warns that “the instant feedback and impersonal communication offered by social networking sites could drive human brains and behaviour in negative directions.” (Greenfield, 2009)

“As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.” (Greenfield, 2009)

Greenfield describes our online relationships as somewhat flat, dampened down, distanced and remote. We might have the opportunity to be less inhibited to say what we like and be what we like, but on the other hand, we miss out on the experiences of a three dimensional relationship. We miss out on having a real relationship.

Teenagers need regular interaction with real people. Images on a computer screen are no substitute. More and more, emails and instant messages are taking the place of face to face conversations. Text messaging is preferred to a telephone call. Our teenagers miss that exposure to voices, inflections in tone, facial expressions and body language—real life connections with people.

How can we deal with these issues while embracing all the good that a technology-filled life has to offer? Leonard’s idea of setting limits on computer use is obvious. He suggests filling that space of time with something constructive and positive. It may involve doing something with a friend, reading a book, playing music or talking together as a family. Taking that time as an opportunity to engage with others is enriching. These are sentiments identical to Small’s ideas where he urges our digital natives to cultivate their one-on-one people skills by making a conscious effort to unplug themselves from their computer and spend more time with friends and family. (Small, 2008)

Mrs A Ingram

References
Carr-Gregg, M. (2007). Real Wired Child. Australia: Penguin Australia
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself. Carlton North, Vic: Scribe Publications.
Greenfield, S. (2009, March 19). Screen culture may be changing our brains. Australian Broadcasting Corporation The 7:30 Report.
Greenfield, S. (2009). British researcher says Facebook a brain drain. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 4, 2010 from http://www.physorg.com/news154807389.html
Greenhow, C. (2009). University of Minnesota study uncovers the educational benefits of social networking sites. e! Science News. Retrieved May 28, 2010 from http://esciencenews.com/articles/2008/06/20/university.minnesota.
study.uncovers.educational.benefits.social.networking.sites
Leonard, R. (2010, March 29). The World in Our Face. Keynote presentation at the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia Pastoral Care Conference, Alice Springs.
Small, G. (2008). Research shows that Internet is rewiring our brains. UCLA Today. Retrieved May 24, 2010 from http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/081015_gary-small-ibrain.aspx
Stone, L .(2008). Continuous Partial Attention – Not the Same as Multi-Tasking. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from http://www.businessweek.com/business_at_work/time_management/
archives/2008/07/continuous_part.html

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