Do Social Websites Hurt Kids' Brains? Give Me a Break!

04/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recent "experts" have warned that young vulnerable brains are harmed by daily exposure to certain social networking websites such as facebook, twitter and myspace. The putative damage includes the inability to delay gratification, attentional deficits and a propensity for self-centeredness. This small group of "chicken little" neuroscientists seems to believe that one can equate the effects of exposure to the computer with life events such as parental absence, abuse and neglect. What is most interesting is that there is not one controlled study on this topic with relevant pre and post measures of brain function. While it is true that the younger generations are increasingly interested in text messaging and emailing as opposed to calling, social changes in how we communicate with each other are difficult to study, let alone change.

Online social networks include over 100 million kids and seem to keep them both in touch with each other and provide the feeling that they are part of a larger community. Both of these results seem desirable in my estimation in light of the role that social support seems to play in health and well being. It is well established that depression is often a result of feeling lonely and unconnected to others. Medical studies emphasize the therapeutic role of perceived social support in recovering from illness. The fact that our kids seem committed to doing more than one thing at a time and/or like a lot of stimulation is neither good nor bad; it merely reflects the change in our pace of life and an increase in the amount of information coming at all of us, which we are struggling to digest let alone deal with. I think that rather than wasting our time trashing online websites, we should be thinking about how to provide therapeutic or helpful content and use these clear conduits into kids' brains to plant positive seeds.

While younger brains are clearly more vulnerable and have greater plasticity, we are just beginning to understand how life experiences lead to the formation of new positive neuronal connections and learning. Studies with Alzheimer's disease suggest that people who are constantly learning novel tasks, are physically active and have significant social contacts are less likely to develop dementia. These findings have resulted in a large number of software products and multimedia technology designed to keep elderly minds' healthy. Is it all that different for kids to play with video games and interact on websites?

From my perspective, the social nature and amount of stimulation kids get with these websites may be quite helpful for the brain. I think that a shorter attention span in kids may have developed as a necessary adaptation to the information overload we are all receiving. While it may appear that these changes are recent vintage, medical researchers in the 1960's described a stress syndrome ("Type A Behavior Pattern") which included polyphasic thinking that tried to keep pace with the "time urgent/hurry sickness" accelerated pace of life. These adaptations are slow in coming and may be related to Type A/ADD types both being attracted to, and procreating with, similar types thus strengthening the genetic expression. In addition, there is a tendency for genes to be expressed more forcefully over generations and so shorter attention spans may be a result. I am not a geneticist so I am not in a position to assert whether these changes are functional or structural...suffice it to say that "something is happening here...what it is ain't exactly clear..." The days of slowly digesting a book or newspaper may no longer be the norm. Some of this unfounded criticism may be Boomers throwing punches at Generation Xers because they know how to use the computer better than us. We clearly need to understand these phenomena before we judge them.