Like most moms, Doreen Dodgen-Magee (Psy.D. ’92) doesn’t like her kids spending too many hours in front of the TV. But Doreen — a Rosemead School of Psychology-educated, licensed psychologist with more than 20 years of experience — has the research to back up her concerns.
As a Portland, Ore.-based psychologist, Doreen has developed a specialization in working with parents and child-connected professionals about the neurological, relational and intrapersonal impact of overuse of technology. A rising expert in the field, Doreen frequently gives lectures across the country to parents and physicians/therapists about how mobile video, video gaming, texting and other technologies are shaping Generation Y.
Biola Magazine recently chatted with Doreen about some of the things she’s most concerned about when it comes to Millennials and media.
One of the topics you speak about is “connecting and working with Generation Y” — those born between 1977 and 2007. What are some key things about this generation that we should know?
I think the first thing I would say is that they are a generation that wants to change the world, and they feel empowered to do so. Sometimes they just don’t have the practical knowledge or the real-life skills to do that in an active way. They know how to harness and use technological resources to get a very broad audience for their concerns, which I think is a wonderful gift that Gen Y brings to us. What we can bring to them is maybe teaching them how to do the real-life hard work — beyond entitlement and empowerment — to make it happen. It’s more than just clicking “like” on a Facebook page for a cause.
What inspired you to start studying and speaking about the impact of technology?
I was looking through some old Life magazines from the ’50s one night and noticed that all the ads, were for convenience foods and cigarettes. It hit me that by the ’70s — or about 15 to 20 years into us becoming completely enamored with convenience foods and cigarettes — we find out about lung cancer and we have the FDA coming out with this food pyramid suggesting that, oops, may be the high fat and high sodium in convenience foods weren’t such a great idea. Maybe it would have been better for them to have stayed as side dishes rather than indulging in them as the main course. And that’s kind of what I think about with technology. We are so embracing this thing that could be a wonderful side dish or accompaniment to our lives. But it’s become the main event. What are we going to see in 10 to 15 years that it will be too late to control for?
What are some of the specific impacts of overuse of technology on our brain?
The biggest impact in the neurological area, that we’ve been able to see through new real-time brain scanning technologies, is that there really is a different pattern of firing that is occurring in the brains of individuals who are completely plugged in. Which, as an aside, is most of our culture now. The newest research from Kaiser Family Foundation in late 2009 showed that, if you control for multitasking [e.g. having a computer open while listening to an iPod and watching TV], the average American spends about 10 hours and 45 minutes a day plugged in. The neurological functioning of these folks looks as though there is less firing in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the CEO of the brain — the part of the brain responsible for the kinds of things that make us adaptable people in the world.
One concern I have is that the empathy regions of the brain and emotional centers of the brain are impacted by that pre-frontal cortex. So if we are tuning more to screens and less to people, not only are we getting less practice time and less face-to-face social time, but we’re also hard-wiring the brain to be less adaptable. Another impact that concerns me is the impact of violence. We can’t predict violence based on the amount of time spent playing violent video games, but we can say that individuals who play increased numbers of violent video games have decreased empathetic responses to real-life violence. If we inoculate ourselves to extreme images on screen, it also depletes the brain’s tendency to seek out real-life stimulation.
At a very fundamental level, we expect less of our brains now. Because we have so much at our fingertips, we don’t ask our brains to remember the same things, which is what makes our brains robust — asking them to know things and asking them to network. Personally — though there’s no proof of this — I think this has a lot to do with the increased instances of cheating. Across the country, schools are dealing with cheating at levels they’ve never had to before, and I think it has some to do with the fact that we just don’t see a need to remember as much because it is going to be right at our fingertips. The neurological component of this is that the regions of the brain that we don’t use or that we don’t stimulate end up getting pruned off. And so if we aren’t asking the memorizing portions of our brains to work, those portions will gradually lose their function. The common example is phone numbers. Everyone used to know at least 25 phone numbers, but now nobody knows any phone numbers, because everything’s in our cell phone.
How does overuse of technology impact our relationships?
I find this the most concerning. We are really coming to learn just how much relationships build the brain. If you look at the literature reviews across the country on technology and its impact on Generation Y, the two findings that have been proven are increased use of technology leads to decreased family talk time and decreased social practice. But it’s through social practice that we learn how to have intimate relationships, how to have a self and how to have a self that interacts with others in a way that respects the other as well as the self. If we are decreasing that time by increasing our screen time, that’s a concern to me.
And because our technology is shrinking in size and becoming increasingly portable, there is the development of these wide-reaching social networks, especially for Generation Y, completely outside the accountability of anyone older and wiser. When I was a teenager, if a boy called me on the phone, it was the kitchen phone and everyone would hear me and my mom or dad would answer. Now, parents have no interaction because everyone just calls cell phones directly. When there used to be one TV in the house, it was hard to sneak off and watch an incredibly violent movie or pornography or something. But now with iPods and devices with screens the size of a watch, there is a total lack of accountability.
Another relational impact is that social networking tends to allow for a broad sense of community, but little depth of community that allows for an intimacy that can just be tapped into. If you’ve had a full day and you haven’t had time to eat and you have an empty stomach, you could drink a whole bottle of water and make yourself feel full, but you won’t have any calories for the rest of the day. And that’s sort of what social network feels like. It fills you up, but there’s not a lot of substance to it.
What about the effects on us as people?
As technology use is increased, it appears to me — and the research backs it up — that the locus of control for a sense of being, which we would want to be inside a person (_Who am I? What am I about?_), has become increasingly external. As our reach can go further out beyond us from our desk or our bedroom, we look further to the outside world to define who we are. So how many friends do we have on Facebook? How many texts do I get in a day? What do I get when I Google myself? I also find in my clinical work a real decrease in self-soothing skills. Because we can go to a chat room at any time and find somebody who can talk us out of something or make us feel better, we just aren’t relying on ourselves to take care of ourselves in the same way. And I also think there’s been a significant decrease in the last 10 years in our ability to delay gratification. Even in very small ways, we are not developing the ability to wait, and I think that impacts our relationships with our selves, and it can be devastating on our relationship with God, because we become unwilling to wait on him.
Let’s talk specifically about texting. How is this shaping Generation Y?
A couple things come to mind. We write things that we would never say face to face. So if you take the impulsivity of an adolescent, together with lack of inhibitions that comes with writing, it’s just rife for tricky situations with texting. Texting in moderation can be very helpful. But if it’s the exclusive form of communication, the relationship will likely move more quickly than it really has the emotional depth to handle — whether with anger or sexual connotation or something.
Also, because it is easy and because it is convenient, we are not doing the hard work of keeping ourselves accountable. If you talk to employers who are trying to bridge the gap with Generation Y, many of them will say that these individuals in Generation Y do not know how to have a conversation. They want to either e-mail or text you and have an immediate answer, and they don’t want to engage in process communication and they don’t want to do it face to face. It’s becoming a huge issue in the workplace.
Are there any benefits to society of these new technologies?
Definitely. I think if we could just use them in moderation, they could be massively rewarding. They are fun. It’s fun to reconnect with people. It can be relationship-building if we use it in moderation. I love what social networking and Skype and iChat have done for my ability to be in touch with the missionaries and ministries I support. It provides opportunities to get resources and training to people who would never get it otherwise. Twitter is great for practical urgent messages in emergencies. There are a lot of great benefits, but unfortunately we have this tendency to overindulge. We should use these technologies for some things, but we should also find real life things to engage with. Force yourself to become more moderate and engage in real life — especially for the young people out there who are digital natives.
Doreen Dodgen-Magee (Psy.D. ’92) is a licensed psychologist in Portland, Ore. Her website, doreendm.com, includes lots of resources and tips for parents.