Is Social Media Rotting Our Brains?

I had the distinct pleasure a couple of weeks ago to share a Media Bullseye Radio Roundtable with Jen Zingsheim and Kami Huyse.  We covered a lot of topics, including Dan York’s thinking on social media overload.

I was feeling a bit cantankerous that day, but I postulated and still believe that social media overload does not exist any more than getting hit by a car does – you have to put yourself in the position to be overloaded or run into ongoing traffic (with the caveat that many of us do this ofr a living and have to do it anyway).

But social media is a certain sense, rotting the brains of some of the Millenials.  Here’s why:

As someone in his mid 40’s with about ten years in the employment industry (a LONG time ago), I have a pretty keen eye for spotting communications talent (or lack of it) that comes out of  undergraduate programs.  I also teach in addition to about 15 years in public affairs, and am seeing some disturbing trends.  There are some terrific exceptions to this rule, but what I am increasingly seeing is:

  • An appalling inability of communications students to write something in the form of a story.  Something compelling with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion.  Something that makes you think or re-think a position.
  • A lack of attention to detail.  The last five percent of any project is the hardest, and when you are writing this is usually making sure that the “prose flows” as well as it is written without typographical errors.   MS Word spell check is NOT proofreading.
  • Traditional sources for news are forgotten (even with an abundance of .rss feeds) and what counts for “news” is Jon Stewart, TMZ and Rihanna and Chris Brown.  Please.  We are facing the worst economic outlook since the Great Depression and yet many people think that a “crisis” is when one recording artist slaps around another.
  • Finally, the ability to think critically.  Look at a problem from different angles, different points of view of interested parties, form an opinion and be ready to defend it.

So what does social media have to do with this?  I have no data to back this up, so this is likely just me ranting, but I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the next generation of communicators who:

  • Think a cell phone text is a whole message;
  • Communicate with 140 characters or less;
  • Can present only in bulleted messages with very little underlying substance; and
  • Think that Facebook is also a news source.

Enough crankiness.  Check out the video below above from Dacher Keltner called “Is Technology Changing Our Brains?”




  1. Sunaina Bhatnagar Says: March 9, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Mark, this post reminds me a lot of my similar sentiments after playing the multi media online game, Second Life

    For my social media class a few weeks ago, I was assigned to explore the world of online games including creating an avatar and participating in the infamous Second Life.

    I could not get over the absurdity of the entire game. Are people not satistised with their real lives that they need to create these fake avatars and spend hours in front of a computer? As you probably already know, Second Life, enables strangers to meet and engaege in meetings, parties etc.

    We are experiencing society as a whole is shifting away from the human touch of communication. No doubt technology now and social media communications are expedient in getting information across, but I feel that the charm of old communication is being replaced.

    It’s unfortunate because young teens only know this current form of communication. As technology continues to exponentially grow, who knows what more communication barriers will exist in the future?

  2. I find the lack of good writing skills depressing–and, I’d like to point out that there are a fair number of professional PR bloggers who routinely make some fairly basic grammatical mistakes, so I’m not sure it’s just the Millenials that are at issue.

    And, while I wouldn’t categorize it as a “crisis,” I do think that the Rihanna/Chris Brown situation is newsworthy(ish), as it does demonstrate that domestic violence is an issue that transcends socioeconomic boundaries. Many young people take their first cues from pop stars (I remember routinely reading Circus magazine and following the lives of many a rock band member, and I turned out okay–I think). My point being, these are the people who are influencing tweens, and the reaction/response will also be closely watched.

    I agree it’s not hard news, and that there are far better places to get news than TMZ etc.

    The most distressing component to me of all of this is the “training” of minds to be ever-more accustomed to very brief spurts of information and the cultivation of an increasingly shortened attention span. It does not bode well for critical thought, plan development, thinking long term, and so on.

    Great post!


  3. Keith Parent Says: March 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I am not sure we can simply draw a line between a lack of traditional communication skills and the rise of new media. A variety of social and technological trends could play roles in the Millennial’s inability to communicate, written or spoken, as fluently as past generations. The rise of new media has definitely contributed to the departure from more traditional communication methods and styles, but I am not sure it has detracted from brain capacity or one’s ability to communicate effectively. For example, Facebook may promote quick grammatically incorrect messages and abbreviations, but it also provides a method for mass communication that has never existed before. I have no statistical data to back up this argument, but I see Facebook, Myspace, blogs and even text messages as a way for people to cultivate an inherent desire to connect and maintain long distance relationships like never before. Dacher Keltner of UC Berkley discusses an evolutionary perfection within human beings that allows us to communicate like no other creature on Earth. We also have the evolutionary adaptation of intelligence, which allows us to use our skills as communicators in different ways as our environment shifts. These Web 2.0 “relationships” do not equal face to face interaction, but they do fill a need for connectivity and awareness of one’s surroundings that could not be attained otherwise. Technology allows people to become less attentive to details, but it also allows people to shift that focus towards the larger picture. If you were running for President of the United States or of your high school class, you wouldn’t want to speak or write in prose or old English for that matter; you would want to communicate in general terms and threw mediums that allow for easy consumption and comprehension. The millennial generation may not write an essay, or op-ed, or white paper with style or grammatical perfection, but its communicators do know how to reach more people, more efficiently and with a message that works.

  4. Kevin Kaveski Says: March 10, 2009 at 6:32 am

    I don’t believe social media is rotting our brains anymore than slang, Ebonics, creole, or other short verbal or written terminology.

    Social media; the Twitter feeds, RSS, Myspace, and Facebook messages are one of many ways to communicate to audiences that may prefer to be engaged differently.

    Personally I don’t watch the news or have access to television most of the week, but I do have access to RSS feeds that provide me headlines to a story. If a headline grabs my attention, then I will seek out the entire story.

    The problem I do see with social media is that it’s predominantly aimed at youth millennial users. Appearing to be a break from older generations communications all together.

    Ask a non-communicator from the baby boomer generation if they twitter or if they use Facebook? And you will see reluctance to accept the new media. I don’t believe that social media was intended for everyone.

    In my own experience with family members who are 60+ (and use Facebook), I see very little use accept to share photos and occasionally write full messages in letter form. These family members have no interest in status updates or text feeds. If they want to follow “news” they will turn on their favorite news channel.

    Now the part where I infuriate people. Social media is nothing more than a novelty or niche form of communication. Because social media is run by and primarily geared toward the millennial generation, the norms (which are established by its users)are lacking. Fully developed ideas and concepts aren’t typically available because these are high school and college students writings. As technology evolves and social media’s users begin to vary in age, creativity, and writing ability, the quality of social media will begin to improve.

    Again, I don’t believe that social media is rotting our brains, but it is making it harder to communicate with mass audiences (who aren’t millennials). Understanding social media and its audiences are only one small aspect of communications.

  5. Catherine Avery Says: March 16, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Reading this post, I remembered the first text message that my mother sent me. At the time, my mother was not at all tech-savy, and she did not even understand the purpose of a text, and therefore, her text was in the form of a short letter or note.

    Five years later, my mother is now the proud owner of an iphone. She is on Facebook, which she updates religiously, and she sends texts that are short and to the point. For millennials, the use of technology is not necessarily a mindset or way of thinking, it is a way of life. For my mother, a baby-boomer, the use of technology is a mindset and way of thinking.

    For me, thinking of how my mother transitioned from not understanding the purpose of a text to an avid Facebook user, and now an iphone owner, makes me question how the use of social media translates for the baby boomer generation? From my co-workers to my parents and their friends, I think that the use of social media is a more gradual understanding and transformation as compared to the millennial generation that has always grown up with quick and easy access to information.

  6. Felicia Akoh Says: March 17, 2009 at 8:35 am

    As Jen pointed out, the Rihanna/Brown incident is newsworthy. Young people today look at pop stars as their role models and such an incident points out that domestic violence is not limited to the older generation but cuts across the entire human race. The Rihanna/Brown incident has created awareness in the society that a lot is to be done on domestic violence and especially to those who witness it.

    The social media and technology has brought the world together. My mum in Cameroon often sends me text messages, but this was not the case some years ago. But what is bad in this is that, I for one often find difficulties when it comes to detail writing. I am always tempted to write the short forms of word FYI, lol.This is actually dangerous to me and so many people out there who find themselves in this same position.

  7. Zhazira Bukina Says: March 17, 2009 at 9:04 am

    The problems with the Millenials and criticism of social media became the order of the day all other the world. Indeed teens and students think that Rihanna’s problems with her boyfriend is the important issue because not only social media tells about it day-by-day. Young people follow MTV’s style. This style forces them to have fun, not to think too much and use Facebook as a news source. The problem is much more boarder than the social media’s roadblocks. This is the culture of consumption that gradually rots the brains of people. Still, the printing press and broadcast media left control of the media in the hands of a small group of professionals. As the internet spread and merge, we now have a platform where every user has power and audience. We have to understand that social media tools are not an improvement to modern society. On the contrary, they are challenge to it. The professional communicators must deal with this matter.

  8. Tzu-Ying(Daisy) Chen Says: March 17, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    This post reminds me of the experience in using new technology, such as computers and cell phones, from ten years ago. I do not think technology is changing our brain but I do believe it is changing our relationships.

    When I was a junior high school student, I had no portable tools or the Internet to obtain immediate responses and resourceful information from friends or the outside world. Our relationships were built on a daily, face-to-face basis. It took lots of time to know more about other people, but our feelings and behavior were more than direct and real.

    At the age of sixteen, communicating with people became much more convenient after I got my new computer and set up a router hooked up to the Internet. I also had immediate conversations and discussions through cell phones anytime, anywhere without effort. I could complete my class review and assignments without going out to meet up classmates for in-person discussions. My family could have daily and greeting conversations with our relatives without driving far away and spending much time simply visiting.

    Thanks to the development of technology, it seems perfect to lead an easy life with state-of-the-art gadgets; however, I am a little upset of losing chances to have face-to-face interactions. New technology provides a method for people to disguise themselves. Real people hiding behind computers and cell phones automatically produce a gap of not knowing each other more in-depth. I cannot receive facial expressions or naturally emotional reactions from whom I am talking to. Interpersonal relationships are replaced with simple word, voice, pictures and images in virtual world. In the real world, we are physically drifting away little by little from each other in the stream of technology.

    From a modernization perspective, social media contributes to a public cyberspace to the formation of online users’ power, the efficiency of group work and the acceleration of information flow. I still hold a positive view of social media, although the drawback of relationship isolation matters to me.

  9. Erinn Dumas Says: March 19, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    “Is Social Media Rotting Our Brains?” is a good question, but I don’t think the question encompasses all the ways that people communicate without being face-to-face. I would broaden it and ask, “Is technology rotting our brains?” and the answer is YES. Americans have gotten too use to communicating in short phrases, using social media tools to get the “news”, and not being able to write a complete sentence, let alone a story. Technology has allowed Americans a short-hand way to communicate. Not all people communicate in this short-hand way, but a lot of people do and have gotten lazy with their communication, making them unable to communicate effectively.

    I jokingly call myself old-fashioned because I like to talk on the phone when I have something to say rather than text, I like to read from a type of paper, rather it be in a magazine or a newspaper. I like the face-to-face interaction and I like speaking with a client over the phone rather than email sometimes.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the video from Dacher Keltner. The response that he received from is rhetorical question of people falling in love without seeing the other person is shocking! It proves that Americans are too dependent on technology. It also proves that people are too comfortable with short-hand, electronic communication. I think you, Mark, made a good point when you said that there is no social media overload, it’s what one allows them self to get overloaded by, especially something like social media and technology.

    Lastly, Keltner’s comment about how the brain has advanced to help humans understand non-verbal communication makes me think back to class when we were discussing sending and receiving messages and the importance of making sure that the receiver of the message interprets the message the way the sender intended for it to be interpreted. That is a hard enough task without technology and I believe that some electronic communication allows people to misunderstand the message that the receiver is sending even more.

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