What does a teenage brain on Google look like? Do all those hours spent online rewire the circuitry? Could these kids even relate better to emoticons than to real people?
These sound like concerns from worried parents. But they're coming from brain scientists.
While violent video games have gotten a lot of public attention, some current concerns go well beyond that. Some scientists think the wired world may be changing the way we read, learn and interact with each other. There are no firm answers yet. But Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at UCLA, argues that daily exposure to digital technologies such as the internet and smart phones can alter how the brain works.
When the brain spends more time on technology-related tasks and less time exposed to other people, it drifts away from fundamental social skills like reading facial expressions during conversation, Small asserts. So brain circuits involved in face-to-face contact can become weaker, he suggests. That may lead to social awkwardness, an inability to interpret nonverbal messages, isolation and less interest in traditional classroom learning.
Small says the effect is strongest in so-called digital natives - people in their teens and 20s who have been "digitally hard-wired since toddlerhood." He thinks it's important to help the digital natives improve their social skills and older people - digital immigrants - improve their technology skills.
At least one 19-year-old internet enthusiast gives Small's idea a mixed review. John Rowe, who lives near Pasadena, California, spends six to 12 hours online a day. He flits from instant messaging his friends to games like Cyber Nations and Galaxies Ablaze to online forums for game players and disc jockeys.
Social skills? Rowe figures he and his buddies are doing just fine in that department, thank you. But he thinks Small may have a point about some other people he knows.
"If I didn't actively go out and try to spend time with friends, I wouldn't have the social skills that I do," said Rowe, who reckons he spends three or four nights a week out with his pals. "You can't just give up on having normal friends that you see on a day-to-day basis."