There is another tidbit of Dr. Dennis’ first post I want to consider. Here I’ll be doing another WordPress experiment, simply getting started on this post, then coming back later to finish it. Since I’m nobody my posts are hard to find in search but at least I can determine if updates change the search results.
So here’s the quote from her post:
In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.
In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).
So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.
I haven’t seen the original study so I’ll just work from the brief description here. I’ll also just accept the conclusion since it intuitively seems to fit the overall idea that the artificial experience of Facebook undermines the normal child development in the “real” world where reading faces is clearly a big part of that. But I’m going to go off a few of my own tangents.
First, from almost zero knowledge and a little anecdotal exposure I thought conventional wisdom was that the first thing tiny infants, as an evolutionary adaptation, learned to do was read adult faces. Hey, dogs can do it, and as we learn a lot better than we once thought. Babies clearly react to faces and clearly need to understand them, at least somewhat. So by the time a teen is on Facebook haven’t they already mastered this skill, at least as much as they’re going to? Is Facebook usage making them forget? Or, just possibly, as I fear will color studies maybe the usage of social media is itself the symptom, not the cause. If you could somehow take the two groups, face-sensitive (low users) and face-insensitive (high users) and do the same test, but before social media, might you find the same thing. IOW, I think you test the kids *before* they begin to use Facebook and then *after* and see if anything changed. Maybe it’s just the kids who are bad at reading faces who use Facebook, a hypothesis I certainly don’t find improbable or shocking. Ask the question whether the kids at MIT as less social adept than those at Chico State and what’s the cause-and-effect in that?
Second I’m not convinced that reading facial expressions is an appropriate surrogate for concluding “less sensitive to emotion”. Let’s take these same kids and if you could get anyone of them to pay attention long enough, have them read some piece of literature that has subtle social and emotional interactions and then see if your two groups show any difference in emotional sensitivity. We know from poker (or detectives) that reading faces is just a skill, not necessarily emotional sensitivity. I think if dogs are good at it it therefore isn’t really indicative of more complex (learned) evaluation of others.
Third, how about a different experiment. Using your two groups make them read textual material with subtle emotional content and see which group has the greater emotional sensitivity there. Maybe the social media group would actually prove more adept since sensitivity to subtlety of language in pure text interactions, without body language cues, might actually be the more complex test.
And finally, so what? Is reading faces really something we need to worry about in the 21st century? Given it’s not clear that reading faces == emotional sensitivity anyway, if we get worse at it will that damage us somehow. And this is really my point about this entire digital_nation subject, which was raised in the Frontline program. Yes, digital is going to change us but so what? One person (forget his name) was raising this point and used as an example the impact of printing press. Before printing press people knew how to memorize long passages from works and recite them. While he didn’t mention it I also saw another show where people talked about the “singers” who furthermore used music as a mnemonic aid to the memorizing and reciting. Or what about the famous Fahrenheit 451 ending, where people return to the oral tradition as the books or burned? Isn’t all this just a case of one technology displacing another, and, yes, there is both gain and loss. A singer of Homer might be more engaging to us than the Kindle book and that’s a loss but so are lots of other things related to modern civilization a loss. The question is does it really matter, either in some societal way or in some personal way.
I recently finished working several years with a team in China. I was lucky enough to actually go there and meet some of them, even have enough time to even scratch the surface of a personal relationship. Now I’m actually old-school and prefer that kind of personal contact, actually seeing them in person. But 99% of my work with them was remote, even if I heard their voices in a phonecall they were using a second language and not revealing a lot (plus try to keep your attention on a disembodied voice through a long meeting). So most of our interaction was electronic and largely textual. I was very much the senior person (to a culture that respects that), plus my company was the contractor and had all the money. So the China team was definitely subordinate, for now! (we’ll all be working for them soon). And so they did a fair amount of ass-kissing. But I always wondered, what did they really think? After a long phonecall did you burble in Mandarin what a pompous bloviating ass I was or were they thankful they could learn something from my experience. I had no clue.
And so that’s another element. We are in a global world and I know that culture matters. My personal experience, not to be generalized, was that I had far more “intimate” (in a business sense) contact with this Chinese team than I’d had decades early when working with Japanese partners was all the rage and I spent several years doing that. I rarely could “read” any of the Japanese colleagues yet was advised they were excellent at reading me so try to be careful what I revealed (I’m not sure I believe either assertion). OTOH, the Chinese colleagues immediately started our relationship with almost Silicon Valley level of informality (possibly just a learned behavior to get contracts) but I was lucky enough to actually talk with my colleagues there about some non-work stuff and get just a hint of in fact how different their thought processes were from mine.
So I’d say culture is way more important than reading faces, so potentially in a global world, esp. one where for better or worse English probably will continue to be the common language that kids who met strangers on social media and establish relationships with them may be exercising a seriously critical skill. Yep, working at McD’s reading faces probably helps, but in skilled work across oceans, maybe subtle reading through limited bandwidth interaction is more valuable. So we win some, we lose some.
I’m more prepared to be worried about social media if it makes kids really weird, not just different. If the kids can’t function in society with the standards that will exist them. If they have pathologies that cause lots of social dysfunction. If they can’t earning a living and pay Social Security taxes so I can get my check. If they continue their drift to the right and so get us in a world war. Yes, I’d be real mad at Facebook for causing these things. But because the kids are rude and don’t pay any attention to us in person because they’re too busy texting – yes, irritating, but so are most of the things they do. Because they have the attention span of a gnat – yes, irritating, and I actually think possibly harmful, except their future will be a world with the attention span of a gnat, so rather than complaining about it as I do (and refusing to give into doing just bullet points instead of my wandering thoughts) those kids will deal with it.
Besides I won’t need people to pay attention to my facial expressions, I’ll have a future generation Siri peering at me through its silicon eye using anti-terrorist facial recognition software that can probably read me even better than the character on Lie to Me. And the robot who is doing this will have its own face, with exaggerated facial expressions that I can see with my worn-out eyes and get comfort as it takes care of me in the rest home, while the kids are out trying to figure out how to survive in a country that thinks every job should be outsourced to someplace cheaper.