06/17/2010 02:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Empathy and the Internet

Lately, the media has been abuzz with concern about the possible negative effects of the internet and mobile devices on our ability to connect with each other. For example, in its recent series on the emotional and cognitive perils of internet use, the New York Times emphasized the problems that too much screen time can cause in relationships. The first article--headlined Your Brain on Computers: Attached to Technology and Paying the Price--closed with this:

[Stanford professor Clifford Nass] thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. "The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other," he said. "It shows how much you care." That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. "We are at an inflection point," he said. "A significant fraction of people's experiences are now fragmented."

That is one of the key issues we explore in our book Born for Love and on this blog. When people spend more time interacting with screens than with each other, they lose out not only by missing particular connections, but in future interactions because less time spent with people means less comfort in doing so and less practice at it. For adults, this practice effect is less important--but for children, it can be critical.

During early childhood, the brain is developing key pathways for social interaction. For infants, these networks rely on physical contact and face-to-face interaction with specific individuals: if they don't get enough personalized physical contact, they can literally wither and die from lack of growth hormone needed to metabolize food. Studies show that for the smallest children, screen time is clearly detrimental--lowering vocabulary and increasing aggression.

But older kids can also be affected when time with computers replaces time with friends and family--even if the child isn't the one using the computer. The second article in the Times' series explored this--covering studies that found that children report feelings of "hurt, jealousy and competition" when their parents pay attention to devices rather than them.

According to this research, children often try to hide this distress from their parents, apparently ashamed of their need. It's as though they have a newer, cooler sibling--who really does get all the attention.

Obviously, no parent can or should pay attention 100% of the time--nor can most parents survive without letting kids or themselves have the distraction of some videogames, internet time or TV. And the internet can enhance social connections when friends or family live far away or when its hard for people to find local folks who share their interests.

However, when both adults and children become so engaged with technology that they ignore each other regularly and repeatedly, something is seriously wrong.

The recent study finding reduced empathy in more recent generations; the basic neuroscience that says that the brain areas you don't use, you lose; this new research on computing and families--all of it adds up to trouble for our children in developing the basic capacity to make human connections.

We need to work on ways to limit problematic technology use-- while finding ways to enhance its positive effects. Simply terrorizing people about the internet making us dumber, crueler and less attentive won't work: what will help is understanding our social brains and finding ways to connect both children and adults creatively.