I finished my grits with their liquid butter and decided to leave the grease on my bacon. I never understood why people wipe it off, that’s the good stuff. Cholesterol and everything. “Lemme take that for ya honey, you all done?” asked the sweet old lady as she came to my table with a smile and a rag. One of those faces you never forget. So many wrinkles, but she probably looked like that the past twenty years. You could tell she loves her grandchildren, if she has any. “Yes mam, thank you so much,” I responded. She took my plate and began wiping the table with the damp rag. She looked back towards the kitchen as they hollered her name, and she accidentally wiped my hand resting on the table. “Oh I’m so sorry honey, that’s your hand not the table,” she laughed lightheartedly at her honest mistake. “It’s okay, now my hand’s all clean,” I said with a smile and sipped my coffee. She laughed. “Hard to tell what’s what. I’m gettin confused like everyone else.” She paused then shook her head. “Nobody knows whats real anymore.” She walked away and left me thinking.
There are many times when I am incredibly grateful I quit social media almost five years ago, but the past few months gave me new insight into how these platforms contain the power to drastically change human life and development. I am constantly working alongside the youth of our generation, high school and college kids, and I am blown away at the evolution of social media and internet culture. The slang, the flood of GIF’s, calling anything that ever happens a “meme”, trolling, stalking, fake news, real news, celebrities’ daily posts, avatars, and the social tracking. I think the most alarming feature of media culture is the sheer time spent by teens on these platforms. The HD generation (“heads down”) spends most of their time living life in this virtual realm. Most of their conversations and connections with each other revolve around what’s circulating around the social media world. These points of contact give us the feeling of experiencing the “world”, but where is the “real world” located? The massive amounts of time that teens spend on social media and the internet help them form strong bonds to these virtual objects rather than real people or experiences. What’s real anymore? This question must be brought up and the answer must be defended. Why? Because if we let more time pass by, then the ones that get to answer this question are the ones that only connected to the virtual instead of the real. The virtual became the real because their brains never developed connections to people and things outside of screens.
The science of the teenage brain reveals scary truths. This crucial time of development from childhood to adulthood brings many hormones, maturation, and change. The time of adolescence is a time of cultivation in the young person’s brain. Processes called synaptic pruning and myelination occur in this part of human development. The human brain during the onset of adolescence is left looking like a chaotic garden. The influx and retention of information, experiences, and relationships from childhood create the beautiful messiness inside the brain. The brain naturally undergoes a period of cultivation in which many connections and data are removed (this is called ‘grey matter”) and some connections and information become stronger and more protected (this is called “white matter”). The experiences of the teenager during this time of synaptic pruning help guide this process. Thus, where and how the person spends their time and attention will help create stronger bonds, which will build their brains to connect to these things or people. In a way this is another “use it or lose it” period. The scary truth is that if the teenager spends the majority of their time looking at a screen, then the anatomy of their brain will genuinely be shaped to connect more strongly to this virtual world. The connections to beautiful sights in nature, information or lessons gathered from playing outside with neighborhood friends, or the look on a friends face when you buy their properties in Monopoly are made weaker and perhaps lost. The virtual now becomes their sense of “real” because their brains say so.
Our brains are not the only things that make us human, but they are definitely a major component. The latest research on the teenage brain gives us important insights into the direction our culture is heading. Luckily people like Dan Siegel and other doctors, psychologists, writers and teachers are studying how our brains develop and are formed. This in turn sheds light upon human behavior and the correlation between people and culture. Most importantly, it shows us how to protect what it means to be truly human.
The desire in the hearts of teenagers is to connect with others. I believe that in many ways this desire is confused. It is misplaced, but fulfillment is not lost. Teenagers are seeking the fulfillment of this desire for connection on these social media platforms and in the artificial bonds that the virtual world offers. Illusions but not real. However, the picking up of the head might lead to true relationships that our hearts desire. The sight of a human face, the discomfort of conversation, and the joy of life outside our own control. Real experiences, real connections, real life. The power of the brain is left in the hands of humans just beginning to grow out of childhood, yet, they are not alone. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. They must be shown what it means to be human, where they need to spend their time, and the responsibility that makes even the numbest souls come alive.
“One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.”
― Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation