March 03, 2009

What is Social Networking Doing to Our Brains?

By Father Thomas Berg *

I have not given up Facebook for Lent.


That's because I don't do Facebook.


For those who don't know what Facebook is (or who -- like me -- know enough to refuse to be sucked in, er, become a user) here's some quick background.


Facebook is a free-access social networking website.  Social networking -- meeting people, making "friends", keeping up with "friends", tracking each others' every move -- is the latest cyberspace craze.  Users can join networks organized all over the world. They can "add friends", "delete friends", send them messages, and update their "status" to notify their "friends" about any aspect of their lives.


Now, call me a sociopath, but are any of you really interested in knowing that  I went to the dentist last Thursday (no cavities), or that a couple of weeks ago I bought a pretty green hanging plant which I keep perched above my computer? But if I were on Facebook, I would have been tempted to make all my Facebook "friends" privy to such extraordinary personal events.


If you want to learn more about Facebook, I recommend you read an op-ed by Jeffery Scott Shapiro ("Confessions of a Facebook Social Climber") that appeared in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. Therein, Shapiro describes how he became a Facebook "friend" of actor Charlie Sheen. The following was priceless:


Within a few hours I found out that my Facebook friend Charlie Sheen is not the real Charlie Sheen -- even though the 1,481 people he's friends with think he is. His profile is littered with sycophantic comments, thanking him for accepting their friend requests. I guess I'm not the only one seeking self-importance and validation. Maybe the Facebook Charlie Sheen is really a 14-year-old kid in Bangladesh, or a Dallas-based telemarketer who's really bored at work. I can't help but wonder who my other friends really are.


Or consider the article by Anamaria Anselmo posted on January 30 in The Brown and White, Lehigh University's student-run newspaper ("Confessions of a Facebook Junkie").  Anselmo confesses that she has an "addiction" to Facebook and ponders the contradictions and potential pitfalls of this social networking program. In particular, this got my attention. She writes:


Out of the nearly 500 friends that I have on Facebook, I have probably spoken to about 100 of them in person and am only "real" friends with maybe 50 of them, at most. With the other strangers I call "friends" on Facebook, can any of them be trusted?


Really good question, Anamaria.  That's using the ol' noggin.


And speaking of Facebook and brains, at last a neuroscientist has stated what many of us consider to be obvious:  Facebook and other social networking media might actually be harming the human brain.  Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, member of the House of Lords, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain recently warned that the instant feedback associated with social networking sites like Facebook -- what she describes as "signing up for friendship through a screen" -- as well as the impersonal manner of communication associated with them, could have perilous effects on the human brain. Greenfield foresees a future in which human adults have severely reduced attention spans, much like children.  In her recent speech on the subject to the House of Lords, she underscored a number of potential dangers:



First, I would suggest attention span. If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action-reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with each press of a key, then such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such time scales. Perhaps when then back in the real world, such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we'll see behaviours regarded as Attention Deficit Disorder. It would be very helpful to investigate whether the near-total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might, in any way, be linked to the three fold increase over that time in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for ADHD.


Related to this change might be a second area of potential difference in the young 21st Century mind, a much more marked preference for the here-and-now where the immediacy of the experience trumps regard to any consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again. 


This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling, or the thrill of compulsive eating. Interestingly, as an aside, one study has shown that obese people are more reckless in gambling tasks. In turn the sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that also play a part in drug addiction. So my lords, we should not underestimate the 'pleasure' of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people. Rather, we should really be paying attention to whether such activities may indeed result in more impulsive, more solipsistic attitudes.


Attention deficits; compulsive behavior; disregard for consequence; increased solipsism. Not good. And when one considers where western civilization could go if we continue to decline in our capacity for sustained and painstaking attention to a single matter over long periods of time... It makes me shudder.


And beyond the valid concern about what social networking sites can do to the mind, I'm even more concerned about what they are doing to our ability to interact socially, and most of all what they are doing to our understanding of friendship and human love.  Can you really call a person with whom you've exchanged an email and/or perhaps spoken to on the phone once or twice or met once a "friend"?  That's not only a sickly impoverishment of the notion of human friendship; it's downright dangerous for a healthy culture.


Contrast, for just a moment, social networking's potential corruption of true human friendship with the free-flowing thought of John Paul II about young people and the common vocation to love:


Young people... know they must live for and with others, they know that their life has meaning to the extent it becomes a free gift for others... It is this vocation to love that naturally allows us to draw close to the young...It is necessary to prepare young people for marriage, it is necessary to teach them love. Love is not something that is learned, and yet there is nothing else as important to learn! As a young priest I learned to love human love... If one loves human love, there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of "fair love," because love is fair, it is beautiful.


(In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Knopf, 1994, 121-123).  


So let's see: we all have a natural vocation to love; friendship entails a genuine giving of oneself to another for the sake of the other ("becoming a gift" for the other), opening oneself in vulnerability to the other for the good of the other; friendship affords me the ability to look into my friend's eyes, and enables us to laugh together and cry together, to spend time with each other, to become better human beings just because we were able to spend an hour at lunch together... 


Contrast that with a little red icon on your Facebook page indicating that someone is inviting you to be their Facebook "friend." 


Sorry, I'll take and keep the real deal.


And for you Facebook users out there: it's still not too late to give it up for Lent. To gain inspiration, you might want to read this quippy post in the Chicago Tribune (10 Tips for Giving up Facebook During Lent). It's not bad advice (except for the suggestion that you switch from Facebook to Twitter), and while the post is humorous, it's the comments that are most telling.  


As for me, one of my most important Lenten resolutions is to spend more quality time with my real friends. Maybe some of them will even post this column on their Facebook pages.


Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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