Is new media technology making us stupid or smarter? Alecia Pinner investigates.
Friendships with people you’ve never physically met. Technology to tackle everything from researching a school essay to driving to a destination.
International experts are warning that online relationships and new media technologies can adversely affect young people’s intelligence, language, problem-solving and social skills — and even the way their brains work.
Seaford psychologist Lyn Benson shares these fears. ‘‘My concern, and the concern of a lot of other psychologists, is that if kids do most of their socialising via social networking on Facebook or through emails or texting, they are only getting a one-dimensional view of the other person’s intentions.’’
Ms Benson believes young people are losing the ability to analyse the body language, posture, facial expressions and tone of voice of those around them, with this lack of direct contact contributing to a spike in youth mental illness.
‘‘I see a lot of depressed young people who feel detached from peers, even if they have hundreds of Facebook friends.
The ‘feel good’ hormones like oxytocin aren’t released when we communicate through the screen.’’ Ms Benson says picking up a telephone or making a Skype video call were better options.
‘‘I’m seeing more and more young people who are cutting themselves, or turning to drugs or alcohol to feel better, when feeling better might only be as far away as the next phone conversation with a friend.’’ Cognitive problem-solving abilities were not developing because tools such as GPS navigation units and the Google search engine, were rendering reference books, dictionaries, maps — and simply asking questions — redundant.
‘‘It will change our brains if we are not using those skills.
People are losing the ability to problem-solve and to communicate on a human level.’’ While primary and secondary school teachers from Frankston and the Mornington Peninsula take precautions to protect students from the internet’s potential hazards, they believe new resources, such as Facebook, have validity as teaching tools.
Carrum Downs Secondary College assistant principal Lisa Holt says Facebook is being utilised to teach elements of year 12 psychology, English, mathematics, literature and health and human development.
‘‘I believe we have a responsibility to teach students how to use the technology responsibly, we can’t hide from it and it can be used for good.’’ Facebook is banned during school hours at the college but revision questions, videos, podcasts, reading material and links to other texts are posted on Facebook and conversations encouraged until 9pm.
‘‘I post questions, they get a notification and then they’ve got the option to buy in or not.
Instantly a conversation starts, the collaboration between them is wonderful.
‘‘Kids who don’t talk in class, shy and reserved kids, are excelling from behind the screen.
It evens up the playing field a bit.
It is working as a different forum and medium for developing social skills.’’ Ms Holt says all college staff have separate school-based and private Facebook accounts and were unsubscribed from students’ account updates so their private postings don’t appear on teachers’ news feeds.
Students who don’t have Facebook aren’t disadvantaged as Twitter, Skype and blogging are incorporated into school life and other, more traditional, learning platforms still exist.
While text language, especially shortened words and acronyms are finding their way into the writing and vocabularies of young people, Ms Holt says students understand when it is appropriate to use the adapted language.
‘‘The only thing that really worries me is the acceptance of bad spelling on Facebook.
The kids see text language as a separate language; they are almost bilingual.
I encourage it when taking board notes, because it is like a modern form of shorthand.
But in formal writing, or when they interact with me on Facebook, they don’t use text language.
‘‘If only they’d be so committed to learning Japanese,’’ Ms Holt laughs.
Benton Junior College principal Marcus Batt said while primary school pupils were not necessarily accessing social networking sites on the internet, they had used their parents’ iPhones, iPads and computers before they even started school.
Pupils in each year level at the Mornington school contribute to class blogs which parents can view and respond to, allowing them to engage with their child’s learning.
Mr Batt says the use of blogs in the classroom enables youngsters to work collaboratively, share their learning and enhance their writing skills.
Technology also helps pupils to research, set goals, solve problems, develop trust and benefit from each other’s strengths.
‘‘Because young kids grow up with this technology, to them it is commonplace; it is an intuitive tool which we can tap into and harness to enrich the learning experience.
It doesn’t replace the teacher-student relationship but it can be used to enhance traditional classroom learning.’’ Digital technology is also changing the landscape of the classroom.
Grade five students at the school are enjoying a software trial in which a microphone and headphones are used to learn to speak Mandarin.
Written and oral language was improved by students writing stories and recording them, developing podcasts, making videos and publishing their work online, sometimes sharing with pupils in other countries.
Last year, grade 6 teacher Laura Quigley was involved in global warming research in the ancient Gutianshan forest in China.
Ms Quigley used blogs and Skype to communicate with her class, who could also speak with other scientists working on the project to collect, plot and monitor data.
Andrew Joseph of the Shed 11 youth hub in Hastings believes the reasons why young people use the internet are changing.
‘‘They primarily use it for social networking and our services have shifted to accommodate their needs,’’ he said.
The centre provides free internet access to young people from Western Port and the peninsula and staff deal with a variety of young people who have experienced the positive and negative consequences of online communication.
Mr Joseph says that due to anonymity on the internet, young people are learning to be wary of issues surrounding identity and the consequences of publishing regrettable material and words.
‘‘They are creating new friendships, sustaining friendships and re-engaging with people they may not have seen for a while.
‘‘Youth workers are concerned that youngsters are using Google to diagnose health conditions before seeking medical advice.
They might be feeling a bit low or down and they’ll self-diagnose with depression or psychosis before seeking support.’’ New technology was helping — and hindering — the youth education experience.
‘‘On the positive side, they have access to information immediately and they can research and develop plans for school projects.
On the negative side, some kids have trouble determining whether the information is accurate.’’ Mr Joseph says staff have seen an increase in the number of young people taking part in online gaming over the past six months, where identity can become an issue in the virtual world.
‘‘They are creating relationships online, sometimes on an international scale.
Some kids consider these people their best friends because they talk to them every day but it could be a 40-year-old man they are talking to.
Games are meant to be fun and somewhat safe but on they internet they can be dangerous.’’