Is social media creating a generation of cowards?

I’ve been asked about my perspective on Malcom Gladwell’s article, “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”  My take on it may surprise you … and provide uncomfortable reading if you are a parent or social media junkie.

Social media and leadership

Mr. Gladwell is a master storyteller, but usually starts with the history of fire to make his point so I will summarize his premise:

Social media will not be the agent of social change that many say it will be because it is built on a network of weakly-connected links and lacks a central leadership structure.  He compares the passive changes built on social networks with the risky and courageous acts needed to confront racism in the U.S. in the 1960s.

His article prompted quite a backlash, including a lengthy article on Mashable with illustrations of social good created through the web.

Perhaps I am the only blogger around who agrees with Mr. Gladwell.  And, in fact, I will take the story even a step further.  Not only do I think the social web is incapable of enabling significant social revolution, it is probably conditioning young people out of the leadership and communication skills they need to lead — or follow — any change at all that requires personal risk.

The end of human social skills?

Here’s a small illustration of what I mean.

Recently a teen-aged girl I know met a new guy and started dating.  He came over to her house, dropped off a CD she wanted to borrow and then left the house five minutes later to go home and have a Facebook conversation with her into the morning hours. They dated for a short time and when he broke up with her (over Facebook-induced jealousy) it was via cellphone.  Not talking — texting.   She said he preferred to argue this way because the delay in response while text-messaging afforded him the opportunity to think of a snide remark. When his Facebook relationship status changed to “single,” a whole new round of nasty claims and counter-claims were levied — to the world, on status updates.

Here is a young couple using technology to avoid the small amount of personal courage it takes to even have a phone call.   The loss of an ability to communicate or even relate to humans in a face-to-face environment is not a mere observation but the subject of a growing body of research.

Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at the University of Oxford, said we are “enthusiastically embracing the erosion of our identity” through social networking sites.  She said children using these sites can  lose sight of where their personalities finish and the outside world begins.

She further claimed that sense of identity is being eroded by “fast-paced, instant screen reactions,” so that the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others instead of their own self-worth.

The neuroscientist even testified before Parliament that “Social network sites risk infantalizing the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

In other words, we may be creating a generation of insecure cowards.

The toxic childhood

Greenfield referred to one subject as saying they had 900 friends, and the fact “that you can’t see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way that you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated.”

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the ‘flight or fight’ region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, writes about “screen saturation” eroding basic social skills.  “We are seeing children’s brain development damaged because they don’t engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia.”

Greenfield warned: “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.”

Generation Farmville

The Mashable article misses the point, or perhaps avoids it. Undoubtedly lots of social good can be accomplished with a Paypal account and a “like” button.  That is all wonderful and I love to read those stories.  But what Gladwell is saying, and what I am expanding upon, is that a systematic re-conditioning of our children is occurring.  They could be losing the very behaviors required to participate in dramatic social change.

Hopefully, we will always have individuals willing to lead.  But will we raise a generation of children courageous enough to  follow?  Courageous enough to risk criticism, risk a reputation —  or even a life — in the name of truly revolutionary change?

Dramatic social change — like Gladwell’s example of confronting racism — takes leading and motivating followers to make a real sacrifice.  Can this still happen in the Farmville Generation?

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