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r u talking 2 me :-?

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By Alison Hewitt, Illustrations by Sean McCabe

Published Jul 1, 2010 11:00 AM


Are IM'ing, texting and blogging ruining our minds — and our relationships? We ask Bruin experts for their take.

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The digital life: Searching. Surfing. Pinging and Tweeting. Everything is just one big . Or maybe not. Kids don't know where the stamps go on envelopes. Cell phones cause car accidents. And let's not even get into the subject of speaking grammatically. Are IM'ing, texting and blogging ruining our minds — and our relationships?

Pop quiz: Where's the best seat in a UCLA classroom?
a) Front and center, where the prof can see you.
b) The acoustic sweet spot, where your digital recorder can pick up the lecture.
c) The distant corner with the broken chair where the wireless Internet signal is strongest.

In a world where it's obsolete to note that laptops are the new spiralbound notebooks, you'd better believe the answer is C.

"Students arrive early to fight over which spots in the lecture hall are best for wireless access," says Thomas Bradbury, a professor of clinical psychology. "They use their laptops to take notes, but they also multitask. I'm sure they check their e-mail and Facebook."

Of course, most everyone multitasks now, and UCLA experts say it's making us faster, but sloppier; more involved, but less engaged. Tweeting, texting, Googling, blogging — it's actually rewiring our brains, contends Professor Gary Small '73 of UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

"It's changing our neural circuitry," he explains, based on his research showing new pathways created in the brains of first-time Googlers. What's left may be a shorter attention span and, especially among the generation raised on technology, a decreasing ability to socialize and empathize, Small says.

In a class he teaches called "The Googlization of Everything," acclaimed Associate Professor of Germanic Languages Todd Presner, a self-described "techi-humanist" and one of Westwood's most well-known thinkers about how digital technology is transforming the humanities, asks the students, "Are we no longer able to stay focused?"

In other words, "You find an answer and you stop looking and wondering. Is this short-circuiting the questioning process?"

Class discussion then turns to the research skills that digital natives — youth — are losing, like the ability to use an encyclopedia.

"It doesn't matter if Google is making us stupid," declares one student in response. "A hunter might say the grocery store makes us stupid because we no longer know how to hunt. But if [having a] grocery store means we don't need to hunt, then it doesn't really matter. It's the same with Google. You don't know how to use an encyclopedia, but you can get the same answer online."

Too Busy Being Informed to Think

Next quiz. UCLA profs are shocked to learn that many students:
a) Think it's appropriate to put emoticons in essays. :-o
b) Don't know how 2 write w/o using texting shortcuts.
c) Have never used a library for books. Ever.

"Tech habits aren't creeping into students' writing at all," says George Gadda, assistant director of the UCLA Writing Programs and chief reader of the student essays used to place incoming freshmen in the Writing Programs. Still, technology has affected first-years in other ways.

"A surprising number have never looked for a book on a library shelf," Gadda continues. Students are more adept than many adults at taking advantage of computerized material, but reluctant to search the shelves.

"We have to remind them," says Bruce Beiderwell '74, M.A. '81, Ph.D. '85, director of the Writing Programs, "that not everything is online. I don't think students understand that."

Writing Program instructors are also seeing deeper changes in tune with Gary Small's observations about rewired brains: People are still reading, but they're reading differently.

"Students seem less accustomed or willing to give extended, deep attention to anything," Gadda explains. "They're checking Facebook, e-mail, checking, checking, checking. They're on top of many things superficially and nothing deeply."

The latest generation of students is as bright and well-spoken as ever, says Gadda's colleague, lecturer Leigh Harris, but they're almost unable to focus on a single topic.

"We have to give them more focused, critical readings as an antidote to this superficial multitasking," Harris says. "They can still do deep, analytical reading, but they need to be prodded and eased into it."

Students are picking up vital skills online, though, and Beiderwell admits that his young charges "are way ahead of us in many ways. But sometimes our role has to be showing them the value of slowing down and getting engaged."

Continuous Partial Atten — Hey, Check That Out! Sorry, What Was I Saying?

Small, a psychologist and author as well as an academic, worries that ...
a) Gen Y — the generation that never knew life without the Internet — is losing the ability to empathize and socialize.
b) The instant gratification of multitasking — a new tweet, a blog update, a fresh search result — could impair Gen Y's ability to complete projects that involve delayed gratification.
c) The negative effects of Twittering, Googling and gaming will begin inspiring public health laws like recent "no texting while driving" regulations.
d) All of the above.

OK, open-book test: The answer's D.

"The brain is very sensitive," Small says. "Spend a lot of time on any task, and some neural circuits will get stronger while others atrophy." This means today's young brains are getting wired up for tech skills, but perhaps not so much for social skills. Brains create most of their empathy-wiring during adolescence, and MRIs indicate this happens in the frontal lobe, Small explains. But computers appear to stunt frontal-lobe development.

"Young brains aren't getting the face time to learn nonverbal cues, and their empathy skills are not as fine-tuned," he says. "They're not seeing the value of face-to-face communication. There are parallels to an autistic child's fear of socializing.

"Some experts say we're becoming an autistic society," Small says.

Now, there's a contradiction in all of this technological transforming, he adds. We have so many forms of instant communication and long-distance networking that we're connecting more than ever before — just not in person. With iPhones, BlackBerrys and other pocket-sized portals, we're always connected. This means less quality time among families, Small contends.

Actually, probably less quality time with anybody. Market research indicates that teens would rather hang out with each other than do anything else, including e-mail or text — but watch any group of kids at any mall and what do you see? You see them e-mailing and texting while they're hanging out with each other. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that the average teen spends about 11 hours a day with cell phones, television, the Internet and other technology.

Bottom line: We have reached a state of continuous partial attention in our glittering, new, digitally enabled society, where we constantly move from one interest to the next but focus on nothing. Small sees it in his own life, such as when his wife asked him to check movie times online. He logged in and was immediately distracted. "Do you have it?" his wife asked 20 minutes later. "Have what? Hey, have you seen this cool website?" he answered.

"We're developing multitasking brains, this staccato-kind of thought that jumps from side to side," Small says. But for good or for ill? "Studies show it's for ill. We're faster, but we're sloppier."

This is problematic enough for adults, but for malleable young minds, it could mean a lifetime of short attention spans. Studies are connecting multitasking to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and addiction. Despite the gloomy predictions, Small sees real benefits from our ultra-linked society, if we can find the right balance.

For example, our extreme connectedness means we could telecommute and spend more time building our families and neighborhoods. Too much multitasking and gaming may stunt frontal-lobe development, but in another study, surgeons who found the right balance in video games — not too much, not too little — began to improve in the operating room.

"There are huge benefits we could harness if we explore this," Small concludes.

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dont QQ, txt wont pwn teh lingo!!!1!

For all you digital immigrants (that would be folks born before Gen Y), that subhead means, "Don't fret, text slang won't take over the language." Not much, anyway.

Which brings us to our next quiz. Bruin language experts believe:
a) Everyone can sound cool now that even your grandparents can look up hip, new slang words online in the extremely reliable Urban Dictionary.
b) Texty words like OMG, LOL and BFF are invading our language at an alarming rate.
c) People have always loved manipulating language, but most slang is transitory.

"Nobody's grandmother is going to become cool by looking at Urban Dictionary," says Linguistics Professor Pamela Munro. "You basically have to know what's cool already just to separate truth from fiction."

Neither Munro nor her College of Letters and Science colleague, English Professor Donka Minkova, put much stock in the idea that tech-inspired lingo is making drastic changes to English.

"There is some hand-wringing from purists who say modern writing [such as blogging and texting] is careless, sloppy, abbreviated, badly punctuated, not capitalized — I could go on, but the effect of this all is very marginal on language as a whole," Minkova says. "When we had the telegraph, that also created a special type of language, but we don't go around saying 'full stop' all the time."

Munro, who works with students to create the UCLA slang dictionary every few years, recalls that about 15 years ago, the slang dictionary was chock-full of pager slang. "That was a really big source of slang, and that's all gone now," she says. "All these UCLA students had pagers clipped to their belt, but who remembers what 143 means? It used to mean 'I love you.' Slang goes away very quickly."

Very few abbreviations from text even migrate to being spoken aloud, Munro says. Shortcuts like IMHO for "in my humble opinion" are among the many common shortcuts seen online, but you probably haven't heard them spoken.

LOL, or "laughing out loud," is one of the few to make the jump to spoken English, Munro says. Another is "pwn," pronounced "pone," a gaming word believed to come from a typo of "own," meaning you just kicked butt and dominated the game. But Munro is most fascinated by QQ.

"This is a pronunciation of an emoticon, and that's amazingly rare," she says of the emoticon designed to look like two crying eyes. "But while this stuff adds to the language, it doesn't really change it."

In fact, Munro and Minkova see the surge in new forms of communication as sparking more interest in writing. Best of all, it gives professors more study material.

"Slang has always been created," Minkova says. "It's just that we don't have very good records of it before the 17th century." Now that everyone is writing down their slang and every tweet is being memorialized in the Library of Congress, the records will be almost endless.

Does Facebook Cause Divorce?

Professors from UCLA's Relationship Institute believe:
a) A text message is inherently unromantic.
b) Couples can't replace face time with Facebook.
c) New ways to get in touch are just a different stage where the same old relationship issues play out.

The funny thing about couples, as Clinical Psychology Professor Thomas Bradbury and Psychology Associate Professor Benjamin Karney M.A. '92, Ph.D. '97, co-directors of the UCLA Relationship Institute, will tell you, is that people in a bad relationship tend to interpret ambiguous situations as problems, and people in good relationships know not to worry. So what meaning do you project onto an unanswered text message, Facebook request or phone call?

"Our ability to stay in constant contact creates more opportunities for these meanings to happen," Karney says. "Now we can exchange meaningful behavior all day long. This might mean that good relationships may escalate quicker, and bad relationships could fail faster."

Like all of our experts, Bradbury also sees the digital-impact glass as half full — he's a big believer that texts and instant messages can improve relationships. In studies of busy families and in his own life, he's seen how staying in touch helps couples coordinate their days, arrange a romantic evening, or figure out who will pick up the dry cleaning.

"The technology can really help the two partners get in synch," Bradbury says. But on the glass-half-empty side, "it can also be disruptive. Is it touching base, or is it nagging?"

Social networks like Facebook also create brand-new opportunities for provoking jealousy and creating misunderstandings, Bradbury says. A recent article in the British newspaper The Telegraph pointed out a rising trend of couples citing Facebook in their divorces, although Bradbury suspects that has more to do with cheaters inadvertently discovering a new way to get caught for something that they would have done anyway.

A keyboard and a screen may seem like a sterile way to interact, but Karney muses, "Who am I to say that a well-timed, well-phrased instant message to someone you love is any different than a rose on your doorstep, or speaking to someone from your balcony?"

With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility

The changes wreaked by this flurry of new technologies are being disproportionately absorbed by Gen Y, who very well may tweet their requests for a first date. But even though many "kids these days" haven't the foggiest idea where the address and stamp go on an envelope and don't know how their parents learned to type before computers (it's called a typewriter — we Googled it), they're hardly falling behind.

"Addressing a paper envelope doesn't necessarily help them, but knowing how to track down an e-mail address — maybe that's the skill that matters," Karney points out.

Colleges may need to step even further into the digital age with a new kind of curriculum, predicts the Writing Programs' Beiderwell. Students are developing powerful new tech skills, but they may not know how to wield them.

He offers the cautionary tale of the Yale student who sent potential employers a seven-minute "digital resume." The would-be i-banker demonstrated his discipline with a video of himself lifting weights and doing karate — and was mocked far and wide for doing so.

"No one had taught him to think critically about this, and about the difference between an audience of his buddies and of professionals," Beiderwell explains. "That's one of our new responsibilities."

Meanwhile, back in "The Googlization of Everything" classroom, a student dissects the digital virtues and pitfalls of instant messaging.

"In person, you're making a genuine first impression," the young scholar acknowledges, but she counters: "Over IM, you can present a more polished image — or you can cover up your faults in a misleading way."

And after that, there's only one thing left to say.

OMG.

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