Digital Media Are a Tool

A recent article by James Fallows in the Atlantic reminded me that digital media are a tool and not an entirely new state of being and behavior.   The article says:

  • “Technology, to them, is neither a sedative that dulls our alarm nor a rocket ship that will spirit us away from our problems; it is a pick—one fairly humble tool among many, including changing human behavior to increase conservation—with which we can hack our way toward a solution.”

As a student of developmental psychology, I examine human behavior and the variables that may affect how humans develop.  One of the biggest changes in the world in the last ten to fifteen years is the explosion of digital media and the ability for many more people on a global level to connect to the Internet.  At times, this rapid advance in technology seems to have changed people in ways that are profound and possibly irreversible.  But extant research has shown that children are using digital media to explore many of the issues that they have always explored, such as identity development, intimacy and social learning.   Even cyber bullying is most often done by kids who know each other from their offline lives.

Yet perhaps the more things stay the same, the more they change (I know this is the reverse of the saying).  Indeed, digital media give children tools that may amplify and actually influence their developmental pathways.  For example, in the case of cyberbullying, now children who are bullied are no longer safe once they leave the school yard, as texting and social networking sites allow 24/7 access.  Nintendo DSIs come with double-sided cameras, so that children not only take pictures to reflect the world outside of them, they also can take many pictures of themselves, perhaps increasing a focus on self.

How will these tools influence human’s behavior?  Could they even change the brain?   Dr. Gary Small , the author of the IBrain who lectured at our forum yesterday, pointed out that scientists believe that the human brain and body changed as the result of the realization that a sharpened stick could be a tool to kill animals.  Once this tool was created, the beginning of the evolution of the brain towards a larger frontal cortex may have begun.  In that case, could digital media, everywhere in our environment, indeed affect and change our brains?  How might digital tools change the practices of the digital natives, and will these practices eventually lead to changes in our bodies and brains?  It’s a fascinating and important question.
Originally posted on parenting in the digital age.