11/15/2010 07:45 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Technology Actually Can Rot Your Teenager's Brain -- and Maybe Yours Too

Recently a reporter asked a question I get asked often now: Is dependence on social technology hurting how people communicate? Are we less agile than before, less attentive to nonverbal cues because, frankly, we're getting out of practice? So many messages, including ones where two people break off a relationship, are being sent by e-mail or text.

Communication is much more complex than this. Just because we can talk and write our thoughts doesn't mean we're doing so effectively. Each interaction -- all day long -- presents a somewhat unique combination of verbal and nonverbal components and many choice points. So, we have to stay attentive. We need to experiment and develop a repertoire of responses - or comebacks -- we can call upon when taken aback.

Attentiveness and experimentation have been stifled by our increasing reliance on e-mail, texts, and other forms of social networking. Our communication is becoming more and more one track and worse -- knee jerk.

Add to this a problem developing for teenagers -- particularly girls. Research indicates that girls are using social media to show how cute, popular, cool and sexy they are rather than how smart and capable or to discuss their interests and plans. It's all about made up versions of themselves in the here and now.

And, if that weren't enough reason to worry if you have a daughter, niece, granddaughter, or girls you teach, reading about themselves as this kind of cutesy person influences who they become.

Self-perception research by Daryl Bem years ago demonstrated how people develop attitudes about themselves by observing what they do. This seems counterintuitive. Don't we have attitudes about who we are and then do things? Actually, to a large extent we learn who we are by seeing the choices we make and from feedback others provide. If girls see themselves as just cute and cool, that in turn causes them to act more in line with this than they would otherwise.

In a discussion online, a young woman told me this:

My generation tends to text/check stuff online every 10 minutes regardless of importance or necessity. As a result, we end up instant messaging each other at work instead of walking to each other's offices. I think it makes us more technology savvy and more connected -- in a way -- but considerably less considerate, attentive and more awkward. I don't think we know when the social networking stops and the real world begins.

And then there is the neuroplasticity of the brain to consider. The brain is malleable. It changes as we learn. New pathways can be formed and new abilities developed if people use their brains effectively. If we don't try new things, if we don't experiment as everyday communication requires, we become stuck in repetitive, often dysfunctional patterns that influence our futures. We exist in URPS -- unwanted repetitive episodes.

The main message here is: If your son or daughter is always using technology and you thought it might be rotting his or her brain, you just might be right. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some suggestions.

One thing I can safely say having studied communication throughout my career, you can't just suddenly become an effective communicator in several arenas if you spend most of your time focused on one.

Kathleen's new book is Comebacks at Work and she also blogs at

P.S. Additional thoughts on communication at work-technology posted on News Cincinnati Nov.16 here