Sunday, April 5, 2009


Tony Foster, in his recent comment on this post, alerted me to this article in the Biologist by Aric Sigman, "The biological implications of 'social networking'".  Let me quote Tony's comment:

Where online contact replaces, rather than supplements, F2F interaction (and this is becoming the norm), biological changes, he claims, make us more vulnerable to physical and mental illness. "Social networking is in many ways an oxymoron ... and is not a substitute for flesh-in-the-flesh relationships." (BBC Radio 4 interview, 19 Feb 09 - the technical shortcomings of prevent me from attaching the 5-minute clip.) His argument rests on the thesis that virtual interaction is actually perceived by the body & mind as loneliness, and this in turn can make us susceptible to a whole range of potentially serious diseases. Well worth considering, if this is what we're actually encouraging by promoting online interaction.

This certainly raises some interesting questions for us as educators committed to developing digital literacy in our learners, and harnessing the incredible potential for connectivity that the Internet brings.  This is our vision and we are excited by the possibilities, but is there a chance that by 'going digital' with our learners we are contributing to the breakdown of face-to-face communication (not to mention the onset of a few diseases)?

I love the phrase Sigman uses in this article, 'iPod oblivion' referring to those so zoned out by their iPods, Blackberries etc that they become oblivious to their immediate surroundings, sometimes with fatal consequences. (Just as an aside, there's an interesting discussion going on over at Open Educator about whether or not students should be allowed to use their iPods at school.)

Sigman's article goes on to say, 

A decade ago, a detailed classic study of 73 families who used the internet for communication, The Internet Paradox, concluded that greater use of the internet was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness.

The first thing that stands out to me about that quote is that a decade is a long time in the world of the Internet. Now we have Web 2.0! Does this make a difference? The fact that people can participate so much more in what used to be a read-only environment, surely must mitigate against these other negative effects??

In this regard Sigman points out that 

A recent editorial of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the timely point that social networking “…encourages us to ignore the social networks that form in our non-virtual communities. … the time we spend socialising electronically separates us from our physical networks.”

Dr Gary Small's new book iBrain looks at neuroplasticity, and the way that digital natives' brains are actually biologically different because of the 'constant presence of technology today'. Interestingly, his book includes a section on 'social skills for reconnecting face to face', and 'empathy upgrades for digital natives'. (Hat tip: Edorigami)

The balance we need to strike is to make the most of what we have digitally (and what a great time to be a teacher/learner), yet never lose sight of the importance of our PLN (physical life network).  We could end up with a generation that is digitally literate, but sociophysically incompetent.

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