Off-Line Human Contact in the Digital Age

Some young people have become challenged beyond fundamental social skills—they have gotten so isolated in their digital cocoons that they fall short in their essential knowledge of the practical world. In response to this educational need, many colleges have introduced courses on paying taxes, doing laundry, preparing meals, balancing a checkbook, and even dining out and using proper manners. The high-tech revolution has disrupted much of the basic life-skills learning that in prior generations would have taken place in almost any tight-knit family. Today, nuclear family members may still live under one roof, but they often substitute cyber interactions for traditional social exchanges with relatives and friends.

Chronic Internet use may produce symptoms of loneliness, confusion, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and addiction, which in turn may further erode users’ social skills. The anonymous and isolated nature of online communication does not provide the feedback that reinforces direct human interaction. For example, an email message has a built-in delay prior to a response, allowing the responders time to think about how they wish to phrase their response and what style they want to convey it in. This delay can reinforce social inhibition.

By contrast, spontaneous face-to-face reactions from others help shape our own intuitive responses. Over time, these interactions create an accepted array of behavioral social norms, such as how to greet a stranger or co-worker or how to dine at an elegant dinner party. Corresponding brain neural circuitry controls each of these complex behaviors and social interactions.

Recent neuroscience points to pathways in the brain that are necessary to hone interpersonal skills, empathic abilities and effective personal instincts. In Digital Natives who have been raised on technology, these interpersonal neural pathways are often left un-stimulated and under-developed. However, electronic overexposure leading to altered neural pathways and waning social skills can happen at any age. Baby boomers and other Digital Immigrants also run the risk of becoming so immersed in the Internet and other new technologies that they experience a social and emotional distancing between themselves and their families and spouses.

Brain scanning research has not only isolated the neural networks that define our humanity, it also shows that we can take control and train our brains to refine our human behavior and social skills. Not only can our face-to-face communication talents improve with off-line training, but other complex mental abilities may sharpen as well. This type of training can include playing chess, learning a new language, taking up painting, or any number of methods of flexing the brain muscle in new and non-technological ways.

Brain function generally does decline with age. It may take older people longer to learn new information and recall it later; however, some abilities improve with age: vocabulary, language skills, expert know-how and emotional stability are among them. Thanks to life-long brain training as we age, our experiences get stored into neural circuits or mental templates that help us solve complex problems quickly and with little mental effort.

Dr. Arthur Kramer of University of Illinois and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied older air traffic controllers and found that their reaction speeds, as well as memory and attention abilities, were worse than those of younger co-workers. But when Kramer tested the study volunteers on realistic, complex and fast-paced tasks, the more-experienced traffic controllers out-performed their younger associates. They had the mental muscle to juggle multiple bits of information at a rapid pace. Their years of experience compensated for other areas of age-related cognitive decline.

An older, well-trained brain can recognize new situations and problems as similar to previous ones it has already solved and use that prior knowledge to work out the current quandary. By contrast, the untrained younger mind may use a more linear, step-by-step approach. One might argue that Digital Natives will learn some of this complex problem-solving online, but it will likely be limited to the mental skills developed for the computer application that is used repeatedly, and may not carry over to other contexts or real-life situations.

Years of face-to-face social interactions train mature people how to control their emotions, particularly feelings like impatience and anger that can lead to interpersonal conflicts. Professor Leanne Williams of the University of Sydney used functional MRI scanning to reveal the strengthened neural circuitry that older brains develop. Her team demonstrated that the medial frontal area of the brain—just behind the forehead—was more active in older volunteers than in younger ones when they experienced negative emotions.

Other research by Dr. Thomas Hess of North Carolina State University has demonstrated the so-called emotional intelligence of the socially experienced, mature brain. His group found that older research subjects were better able to judge character traits such as honesty, kindness, intelligence, or deception, and to ignore irrelevant details about another person, when compared with younger volunteers. Additional studies support the idea that a mature brain is more resilient and less prone to sadness and depression. Government scientists have found that older adults in their sixties and seventies report fewer sad days per month compared with people in their twenties.

Intervention studies using PET scans show that various forms of talk therapies can influence brain activation patterns. In depressed patients, psychotherapy stimulates certain brain regions known to control mood deep within the brain. Obsessive-compulsive patients who respond to therapy show decreased activity in the caudate nucleus and other deep brain areas. The psychological insights gained from discussing personal thoughts, feelings, and problems with a trained therapist can activate additional brain regions, which control thinking and problem solving (frontal lobe), as well as memory and emotions (temporal lobe). All of these psychotherapeutic interventions involve language and face-to-face contact, which contrasts greatly to the brain stimulation that comes from exposure to a computer or video screen.

Off-line brain training may counteract many negative consequences of extensive time online, particularly the neglect of a healthy lifestyle. Chronic Internet and technology users generally exercise less, gain weight, and experience more stress related to multitasking compared with people who rarely use technology. Our UCLA group studied what happens when instead of constantly manipulating hand-held devices and computers, research subjects adopted a healthier lifestyle. We recruited primarily middle-aged volunteers to follow a healthy lifestyle program consisting of cardiovascular conditioning, memory exercises, relaxation techniques, and a healthy brain diet. After just two weeks, we found significant improvements in memory scores, as well as dramatic changes on their PET scans demonstrating increased mental efficiency in the front part of the brain, which controls short-term memory and complex reasoning.

As the lure of technology distracts people of all ages from their usual personal interactions, their neural circuitry changes and everyday social skills begin to decline. The extent of these adaptations vary, depending on an individual’s previous experience, amount of time online, and other influences. New technology has brought us remarkable advances, and the challenge is to take advantage of the technology without letting it take over other important aspects of our personalities. By identifying areas in our lives where off-line brain training can counteract the impact of digital stimulation on our mind’s neural pathways, we can take control of how our brains adapt to new technology.

To get started, consider the following general tips for enhancing relationship skills and keeping technology overload at bay:

Cut back on the amount time you spend using all types of technology. Keep track of how much leisure time you spend answering email, talking on your cellphone, text messaging, watching television, or anything that does not involve face-to-face interactive contact with others each day. Add up the total time, and begin decreasing that amount by 10 to 20 percent at intervals that feel comfortable for you.

As you begin reducing your time on one technological device, take care not to substitute it with another.

Make a conscious effort to spend more time with people you care about. A fun, relaxing and fulfilling social life will reinforce your tendency to stay connected off-line.

Try to schedule regular family dinners. Recent research has found that teenagers who have a chance to reflect on their day with their families are less likely to abuse drugs, become violent, or engage in other high-risk behaviors.

In addition to working on people skills, adopt other healthy lifestyle habits. Keep your brain fit with off-line mental aerobics, eat a healthy diet, get regular cardiovascular conditioning, and practice stress reduction techniques.

Gary Small, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Aging at UCLA, and the co-author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. He can be reached at

Gary Small
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Spring 2010