Blog: Your Brain on Facebook: Self-Centered and Easily Distracted

There's been flurry of debate about what effect social technologies such as Facebook and Twitter will have on our brains. Does it shorten attention spans? Does it make us more narcissistic? While social media evangelists are loath to admit it, the answer to both those questions is most certainly yes. But the adverse effects of social technology will pale in comparison to how much television has polluted our brains.

Despite these drawbacks, services like Facebook and Twitter benefit society more than they hurt it — provided Old media survives in some form.

UK neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, recently reopened the Facebook-makes-us-dumb argument when she noted to the Daily Mail that "my fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment."

Before the House of Lords, she participated in a similar discussion on the topic, noting that social networks were harmful to children because they encouraged a "constant reassurance that you are listened to, recognised, and important." Interacting socially over a screen, instead of in person, she argued led to an erosion in the way we respond to body language and the ability to interact in real life.

Although I would like to see more hard data from Greenfield, we all know she's right, so the social media evangelists should dispense with calling this a war on their technology of choice. She's just stating the reality: because social networks are here to stay, it will have irrevocable effects on the way we absorb and disseminate information. And, by the way, much of that will be harmful to our basic social and cognitive skills.

So what would I bemoan most in this transition? For one, the fact these kids growing up on social technologies don't have the attention span to read an article in the New York Times or a novel will be a pity.

While, yes, social media users can piece together news and insights from comment threads on Facebook and Twitter, what's often forgotten in this transition is that these discussions occur by using old media (and I'd include blogs in that classification) as a baseline. So there's an intrinsic irony in (gleefully) calling "old media dead" when it's eventual demise will mean the conversations on these social mediums become dumber and less intellectually informed because that baseline of information (usually in the form of a link) has been eliminated.

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The emergence of user-generated content by informed experts will offset the downfall of Old Media somewhat, but I reject the notion it can entirely without something being lost, especially in certain areas or our society where old media is still needed. A blowhard, pontificating blogger who doesn't leave his house or make any phone calls will not, in most cases, offer a better take on the day's politics than an NY Times' David Sanger chasing down sources throughout D.C. Or, more to the point, the blogger has nothing to pontificate on if the Times, Washington Post and all those traditional guys don't go to work.

Despite these drawbacks, at least social technologies make discussion possible and can hold Old Media accountable. That's something to celebrate even if our attentions spans are lost and we're more concerned with "me me me!" when we log on. Television, in fact, has been a far bigger evil at polluting our brains.

Aside from some efforts by Al Gore's Current TV, which integrates social technologies for viewers to interact with the programming, television has never been more static, mind numbing and terrible. I'm perpetually astonished by the shows (The Bachelor & The Bachelorette, The Hills, etc.) that continue to enjoy airtime. For these plethora of stupid shows, the common qualifier I hear is: "I watch it because it's so stupid that I think it's funny."


Good television shows exist, but they usually walk a thinner line and find it difficult to stay on the air. There's a laundry list of intellectually curious or clever shows (see: Arrested Development, Pushing Daisies, Studio 60, among many others) that have difficulty making money and get canceled.

So the fact kids will upload a video or type a comment on a social technology is far better than sitting on the couch and watching "reality" shows that represent anything but. The discussions of social media in the future might not — or will not, depending on how cynical you are — be in regards to a novel, a biography about John Adams or Abraham Lincoln, or a feature in the Times. They probably will center around games and who you spent your Saturday night with.

But thanks to TV, it could be — and has been — much worse.