Friday, January 29, 2016

i-Minds, by Mari K. Swingle

Look around, at the dinner table, on public transportation, at other drivers at a stop light (or driving on the road), at work, just about anywhere, and many, maybe most, maybe all of the people you see are transfixed by their smart phones.  A boon to communication and information?  A detriment to social interaction?  A signal of permanent changes in the structure of our brains and of society?  All of the above?  Psychoneurophysiologist Dr. Mari K. Swingle writes in i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species that, in fact, our brains can change as a result of what she calls i-tech, but that doesn't have to be the bottom line.

On one level, Dr. Swingle's point is self-evident: new technology changes the way we interact with each other and the world around us.  Written language, the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, movies, television, computers, the internet, now smart phones and social media.  Dr. Swingle argues, based on her clinical observations of brain wave patterns, as well as on behavioral observations, that current i-tech takes it a step further, with actual rewiring of the brain.

Dr. Swingle is not all gloom and doom, nor does she take a Luddite position rejecting technology.  "True integration," she writes, is technology that "fits in, being integral to modern life, without overriding, or eclipsing, the development, or maintenance, of other healthy behaviors."  Her theme is "nothing wrong with a little, a lot wrong with a lot."

Parents and non-parents alike will nod in agreement with Dr. Swingle's assessments and recommendations to reduce i-tech usage, especially by very young kids.  Brain wave patterns aside, she describes the ways in which i-tech can alter the way people relate to one another, play together, and learn.  One troubling example relates to the online bullying.  She argues that given the zero-tolerance policies against physical violence at school, children have taken their bullying to i-tech.  In the past boys would fight and be done, or kids would taunt other kids as they passed in the hall.  Now boys and girls take their disputes and taunts to i-tech, where the audience is larger, the record is permanent, and the humiliation is more widespread and accessible.  The solution has become larger than the problem.

I was interested in her discussions of children with autism.  She writes that if you have an autistic child, "under no circumstances permit the child to engage with i-tech, any i-tech," arguing that the hyper-focus on i-tech with thwart social development.  She acknowledges that some individuals can "functionally use technologies for work and communication as needed when older," but doesn't say when "older" is old enough.  I personally have watched my non-verbal daughter, an i-tech lover, use her iPad and other assistive technology to communicate and interact with others.  I am delighted that we have i-tech tools to help autistic and other disabled individuals communicate.  Throughout the book, I was surprised that Dr. Swingle didn't encourage more use of i-tech for people with disabilities.

Much of Dr. Swingle's advice seems very old-fashioned and common-sensical.  (And I mean that in a complimentary way!)  She concludes with some great guidelines: set boundaries, play (she's big on play), get face-to-face with people, use i-tech purposefully and not for its own sake.  I don't know what permanent evolutionary changes we are bringing on ourselves.  Dr. Swingle does really, either.  But I can agree with her call to put down the phone and interact with the world around you.  I-tech is a tool, and can be useful, but we must not let it take over our brains and our world.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about psychology

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