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Cognitive Impacts of Social Media and Digital Devices

As an educator that works both in educational technology and teaching psychology, I have a natural infinity for the intersection between technology and psychology. One area of this intersection that interests me is the impact social media has on us cognitively.

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Image Licensed from Shutterstock

Interesting research exists about the impacts social media has on attention and emotions. In regards to attention, the research tends to focus on the issue of multitasking. What we are actually doing is not multitasking, but task-switching, which is switching from one task to another very quickly. Many people these days have multiple windows open on their computer and have their smartphone nearby while they work. Social media sites are often open on both devices, especially with today’s students. This issue has been the main culprit in the increase in task-switching. Research is showing that our brain doesn’t really have the capacity to multitask or task-switch. There are biological reasons for this. As this article explains,

“Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens.”

Maybe the brain will evolve its capacity to be an efficient multitasking machine like a computer, but until then, which will be way beyond our lifetime, multitasking should be considered a bad habit because of these reasons and the negative impacts they bring on our ability to focus our attention.

In the realm of emotion, fascinating research exists about how constant use of digital devices is affecting our ability to read emotions in the real world. A 2014 study done by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that sixth graders who went 5 days without access to any screens (mobile, computer, or TV) showed a better ability to read human emotions than peers who continued their digital screen habits. The conclusion was that we, especially kids, can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues through digital devices. We can only learn those through consistent face-to-face interactions with other people.

The recommendations for both of these cognitive impacts wouldn’t be to abandon our digital devices completely. Turning them off when we really need to focus on a task is usually a good approach. Otherwise, finding a balance and using devices in moderation would be the best approach.

This post is cross-posted here.

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There Is a Line

If you know me well, you’ll know that I’m liberal and progressive-minded in pretty much all aspects of life. If you read through all of my posts in this ToGa Learning site, which mostly focuses on issues in education, you’ll recognize that I’m an ardent supporter and practitioner for innovation, change, and  transformation in teaching and learning. I’m not a fan of the industrial model of education as I feel it does a disservice to how students need to learn in order to be successful in today’s world. I’m not a fan of the pervasive use of standards and benchmarks and standardized tests and I’m not a fan of policies like No Child Left Behind and Common Core.

Upon some personal reflection, I think part of this passionate attitude for innovation, change, and transformation was developed from being a huge fan of alternative and independent music from my youth in the early/mid-1980s until the present (You can read this post I wrote a while back about my life-long passion for music). My favorite musicians and influences have been those that have done things differently in music, upending the system in some way, being irreverent at times, and creating some controversy along the way. As Jack Black teaches the kids about rock-n-roll in the movie School of Rock, they “stuck it to the man!” Some of these influential musicians of mine are: Johnny Marr and Morrissey of The Smiths; Robert Smith of The Cure; Cocteau Twins; The Doors; Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz; David Bowie; Death Cab for Cutie; XTC; Jeff Buckley; The Pixies, and Radiohead.  These musicians and bands are ones people still talk about today, while other bands who played the status quo or mainstream style of the time have withered away.

Image Licensed from Shutterstock.

Image Licensed from Shutterstock.

Recently, U2, another very innovative band that has constantly evolved and pushed musical and social norms over the years, released a new album. Even though I was never a huge fan of U2 and I own only  few of their albums, I did always respect their innovative approach to making music. The Edge’s guitar style was like no one else’s before him, and I’ve always admired that. The way they released their new album, Songs of Innocence, however, pushing it into millions of unsuspecting iTunes users’ music libraries, crossed a line in my usually liberal opinion. In a recent article, Bono referred to their approach in releasing this new album as “punk rock.” I don’t think it was “punk rock.”

I’m all for the punk rock DIY ethic and attitude of sticking it to the man, but this manner in which they pushed their album into iTunes users’ accounts was a blatant invasion of privacy. As far as I know,  punk bands in the 70s and 80s didn’t break into people’s private houses uninvited, setting up their instruments and blasting out a set of music. This would have been illegal, considered an invasion of privacy, and the band would have been arrested. Also, as far as I know, no band has ever shipped out millions of cassettes, records, or CDs in the mail to random people around the world who didn’t ask for it. The investment of time and money to do such a thing never would have come back to benefit the band/label financially. Just because we now have the technology to push an album into people’s computers at little or no cost to the band and their label, it doesn’t give a band the right to make us receive the thing without wanting it, taking up space on our devices. It’s an invasion of privacy to do this. It’s really not any different than a hacker that pushes a virus or bug into your technology without your knowledge. Hackers that do this are usually arrested and tried as criminals if caught.

I’m not arguing here for U2 to be arrested. Apple is to blame for this, also. I just think the band needs to reconsider their action, apologize, and stop referring to it as being “punk rock.” If U2 want to give their album for free, that’s great. That’s their artistic choice, but let the people who actually want it go to iTunes or wherever to download it on their own free will. Many other bands have released an album for free in this more ethical manner.

U2 will never lose their place in history as an innovative and transformative alternative rock band. They’ve made some great music over the years and support some very important social causes. I also recently read that they are apparently working on a new digital music format with Apple. I’m very curious to see what this is and I hope it will be something awesome. As an educator and technology learning coach who works to instill ethical digital citizenship practices in my students, I hope this action U2 took doesn’t set a precedent for other bands and artists, both now and in the future. It will be a very slippery slope if it does, and I feel more problems than benefits will ensue.

If you want to remove U2’s album from your iTunes, follow this link.

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