When I was a kid, we used to sneer at the children who scuttled indoors as soon as the evening tv programmes started. (Yes, it was that long ago.) The rest of us had a grand old time playing in the streets, the fields, the woods or going for a bike ride or a swim. Even now, I regard most television output as a waste of time.
But then most people who look at me 'playing' with the computer probably regard that as a waste of time. Little do they realise that the computer is actually a doorway into a world of personally-chosen information and relationships, not to mention local tools for manipulating words, numbers and images. One thing I never do is play computer games. As an ex-programmer, I find the idea of pitching my wits against another programmer a bit of a pointless exercise.
Just lately, Twitter and other social sites have come in for increasing amounts of stick, a lot of it from journalists who assume that the public can't tell the difference between responsible and irresponsible blogging. Or, just this week, the journalists who have reported that Twitter can make us 'immoral'. This is tosh at two levels. First of all, it's a misinterpretation (by the Daily Mail in one particular case) of what was actually said by the researchers into the subject. Second of all, it's loading Twitter with problems that started with television at least, and possibly radio before that.
Mind you, the researchers'publicists have themselves to blame. The story announcement, from the University of Southern California, had a sub-title that read, 'Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass.' The fundamental idea is that when information and images are coming at us thick and fast, our poor brains don't get enough time to reflect on what we're seeing. Apparently we need between six and eight seconds for emotions relating to our moral senses to awaken in our minds. By that time, especially with quick-fire media, the moment has passed and the appropriate emotions fail to surface as the next story grabs our attention.
The study raises questions about, "the emotional cost – particularly for the developing brain – of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets obtained through television, online feeds or social networks such as Twitter." You can't help feeling that last item was chucked in as a news hook. After all, you're unlikely to encounter a lot of emotion-laden content in a 140-character Twitter tweet.
Of the list, television news is probably the biggest culprit. And who sits in front of that all their waking hours? Most of us spend the majority of our time engaged in other activities which give us time for reflection, if we need it. And we spend a fair bit of time, especially if we're in the vulnerable mind-developing group, playing with our chums or hanging out with the family and learning about life and compassion in these inherently slower activities.
It strikes me that the anti-Twitter venom which was generated by this story would have been better aimed at television producers and shoot-em-up games writers.
The study, if you're interested, comes out next week at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences http://www.pnas.org/content/early/recent. It will be called, "Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion."
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