"The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the 'pleasure' of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people."
I completely agree -- feedback systems are powerful drivers of behavior, and social networks provide almost constant feedback with variable reward size - AKA the classic "one-armed bandit" variable reinforcement schedule that diabolically addictive. She continues:
"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world."
She's right -- we are HIGHLY adaptable creatures. Our brains are wired differently than our ancestors, because we grew up in a different world. Books, telephones, movies, TV, and video games have dramatically changed the entertainment and communications landscape for humans - and inevitably shaped our brains.
Our kids are growing up with social networks -- not to mention a dizzying variety of compelling computer games. Kids often communicate as fluidly online as they do in person. For them, it's not about whether you're online or F2F, it's all part of the flow of communicating, socializing, and staying in touch.
Which brings us to this post by Sarah Lacy on why Social Networks Are Good for the Kids In refuting Lady Greenfield's conclusions, Sarah points out:
...like a lot of people who don’t actually use these sites, she’s missing a fundamental shift from Web 1.0 chat room days to Web 2.0 social networks: Real identity. We no longer “go to the Internet” to interact with some shadowy user name where we pretend to be someone we’re not. Ok, maybe people on Second Life do. But sites like Facebook and Twitter are more about extending your real identity and relationships online. That’s what makes them so addictive: The little endorphin rushes from reconnecting with an old friend, the ability to passively stay in touch with people you care about but don’t have the time to call everyday.
Bingo. That's the unpredictable payoff of social networks - you never know who's going to show up next, or connect with you, or post an intriguing status update or photo. SNS's keep you lightly connected to a larger group of people, and enable you to stay in touch via a shared digital lifestream of status updates, photos, videos, notes, and affiliations. You get to know a different side to people - and when you see them in person, you have more context for what's going on.
Whether it's movies, TV, videogames, slot machines, or even books, humans will always compelled AND shaped by new technologies. Some people will abuse new technologies - that's a given. Check out the cheap slots in Vegas, or the sad stories from WOW widows, or neglected convalescent patients drooling in front of an always-on TV, to see that phenomenon in action.
As a parent - and former Neuroscientist - I embrace new technology knowing full well that it will shape our brains. How could it not? We're born to adapt -- and our technologies are an increasingly big part of our environment. Rather than bemoaning this inevitable fact, I think it's more forward-thinking and practical to embrace our brain plasticity, and learn how to use the technoligies in a healthy, life-enhancing way.