<< by Kaitlyn Smeland Dhanaliwala on February 27th, 2009
As search engine marketers, we obviously spend a lot of time using, researching, and thinking about search engines. Virtually all day is spent online. Search is at the forefront of our minds.
And so a few recent bits of news about the effects of internet use on brain function naturally caught my attention. (Although according to these studies, grabbing my attention may not actually be too difficult).
Frank Reed over at Marketing Pilgrim wrote earlier this week about a statement by Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter MAY negatively affect children’s attention spans and social skills. Greenfield cites the observation by many teachers that students are having a harder time relating to one another and are no longer taking time to plan their essays before beginning to write.
At first it seems ironic that social media may stop young people from developing social skills, but Greenfield explains:
I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.
Wow, that’s quite a graphic analogy. I’m not sure it really benefits Greenfield’s cause to liken real relationships to meat in a slaughter house. But regardless, Greenfield believes young people are no longer as well acquainted with the more direct work involved in face-to-face relationship building; instead they are more comfortable in the faceless, removed world of tweets.
And anyone in business who knows that sometimes one phone call is worth a thousand back-and-forth emails understands that this could eventually be a problem. Indeed, a recent UCLA study at the Memory and Aging Research Center also concludes that “digital natives” (younger people who spend 8.5+ hours per day online) generally display poorer people skills and empathy.
Professor Greenfield has faced some substantial criticism from social networking proponents who feel her observations are unsupported by the necessary scientific study. However, to be fair, she is not opposed to social networking on the whole; rather, she believes children should learn to form real-time, face-to-face relationships before they start social networking online.
Last year in an article published in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr (author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google) raised the concern that after years of working heavily online- searching and emailing and twittering away- he found it more difficult to finish a book in its entirety. And this from a previous Literature major!
Carr also cites a medical blogger, Bruce Friedman, who admits:
I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print…I can’t read War and Peace anymore…I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.
[Notice my use of the ellipsis... I guess I cannot even write this post without skimming all Bruce's yada yada yada... What was I talking about again? Oh yeah-]
However, there is a ray of hope here for all of us glued to our computers all day. Dr. Gary Small, head of the aforementioned UCLA study and author of the book iBrain, finds that people who have grown up using computers heavily in their everyday lives show heightened multi-tasking, complex reasoning and decision-making skills. All good things!
Furthermore, among “digital immigrants” (older adults who do not spend much time online), surfing the net can actually improve mental accuity. Says Dr. Small:
A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older.
In the UCLA study, surfing online stimulated the same regions of the brain as reading a book as well as the region responsible for decision making. (Yes, reviewing a SERP and following links do involve the weighing of available options…)
So in conclusion- Twitter away, SEMs. Just try skipping the metaphorical supermarket and hunting your own dinner once in a while.