Isolated Social Networking

January 9, 2012

Closeup of a cell phone keypad

Copyright 2011 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

It is quite common to enter a classroom and see students at their seats appearing to be busily texting someone or surfing the net on cellphones or iPads, rather than chatting with each other “live”.  They do appear quite focused on the task at hand and often do not look up or respond to a “good morning”. If repeated, that salutation does get their attention. Nonetheless, it is necessary to remind many of them of the need to disconnect as class is starting.  Relying on this type of electronic form of communication appears to present other problems as well.

On two separate occasions this past semester two different students reported that their phones would not send an email so as to inform me of an absence from class.  On both occasions, I asked them to take out their phones and show me the message-one phone had it, the other did not.  More to the point, I suggested that they each could have called-after all, they were holding state-of-the-art “smart phones” in their hands.  Emphasis on the word “phones” here.  This suggestion was greeted with blank-faced stares by both students.  When they recovered from shock, both said the same thing-“I never thought of that”.  Imagine, actually talking to a person.

Full view of broken cell phone

Copyright 2011 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Ira Flatow has written several books, one of which I just read.  In Present at the Future:  From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature, he mentions a study published in 1996 regarding Alzheimer’s Disease in a population of nuns.  The New York Times summarizes the study here-please do read the article as there is much to ponder.  Basically, researchers found that those who wrote more complex sentences, those with higher “idea-density”, during their 20s were much sharper mentally into their 80s than those who wrote simple sentences.  Fascinating.

Truth in disclosure-I do not engage in any social networking as that term is used today.  No Facebook, no Twitter, no Linked In.  Therefore, I am certainly not in any position to say how much idea-density one can put into a 120 or 140 character tweet.  I have, however, read years of paragraphs and papers written by students and many of those have a decided lack of idea-density.  No, my one concession to modern social networking consists of texting-something I have now done for a bit over one year.  My texts tend to be very simple sentences, that is, when I use complete sentences.  Quite honestly,  most of the time I do not even use complete sentences as it is just too much effort to do so using the phone’s keypad.  Forget about idea-density.  Such seems to be the case for many when texting, which brings me back to the research with the nuns.

If  writing style turns out to be  factor in, and/or related to, the development of Alzheimer’s, what will happen to this generation who has grown up texting and tweeting?  Developmentally, the teen years are critical to the long-term functionality of the brain, and how one treats her/his brain during this time appears to have profound long-term effects (as described by Sharon Begley here).  It is important to note that, as the New York Times article points out, the development of Alzheimer’s is related to many factors and so one must be cautious about drawing conclusions.  And this is an old study.  Still, that research is compelling and worthy of attention.  Creative writing attention, that is.  Simply because, what if?

Take good care.

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