The Snark Connection: Is Electronic Media Making Kids Mean?

The word is out. Too much screen time is messing with our kids’ brains.

With older kids – teens, 20s, 30-somethings, the damage may already be done.

“Multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage of tissue volume) in gray matter areas (where ‘processing’ occurs) in internet/gaming addiction,” writes Victoria Dunckly in her Feb. 27, 2014, Psychology Today blog, “Mental Wealth.”

The Los Angeles-based integrative child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist cites a finding of particular concern: damage to an area known as the insula, “Which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion.”

My contention is that changes to the brain caused by excessive screen time is negatively impacting the way families communicate, turning us into what I call a “Click Culture.”

Some researchers say the new culture is characterized by shorter attention spans, decreased patience, and an inability to read in-depth material. I also think it makes people bored with one another unless they’re being entertained, and far less likely to listen to differing opinions.

teenager rolling eyes at mother

It only makes sense. While video games and social media deliver instant rewards, they also remove the demands of interfacing in real time with real people.

To find out more about the toxic effects of screen time, I signed up for Dunckley’s free-4 day mini-course, “Save Your Child’s Brain” on her website, Dunckley coined a special term for what happens when kids are exposed to too much electronic stimulation. She calls it “Electronic Screen Syndrome.” Boy playing video game

Day 2 of her mini-course lists some of the symptoms caused by electronic screens: irritability; inability to complete tasks or follow directions; temper tantrums; poor frustration tolerance, meltdowns; overwhelmed with normal daily demands; feeling anxious or stressed over small things.

Sound like anyone you know?

What distresses me are the symptoms I’ve seen in young adults. Millennials, if you will. It’s not the falling-limp-on-the-floor behavior of a distraught five-year-old. But rather a propensity for rude or judgmental remarks that succeed in ending discourse.

The closest word I can think of for the phenomenon is “snark.”

Not the illusive fellow of Lewis Carroll’s famous poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” (Although the  snark I’m talking about could make you feel like you’re chasing an imaginary character.)

Some writers have labeled it  “irony,” but I prefer to think of it as highbrow bullying used by otherwise intelligent people to derail a conversation.

Afterwards, the person on the receiving end – the one who initiated the conversation in the first place – feels stupid and somehow subhuman, or at least terribly dull. And they walk away wondering if what they had to say had any merit in the first place.

Here’s a good definition: – “When somebody is being snarky, it means that they are being sarcastic or snide. Snark is a combination of the words snark and remark and is not recognized in the dictionary as a word, although it has taken off as a popular way to refer to somebody saying things maliciously or with unkind intent. Much of the time it is used to refer to somebody saying something cruel or biting to somebody else, with the purpose of laughing at somebody else’s expense. It is usually a remark that will sting someone else that may or may not be taken humorously by others.”

In college, I might have found snark invigorating, as hipsters do today. But I would not have qualified for the designation. Not only were my comebacks not razor-sharp, I wasn’t label-conscious enough to know I was supposed to avoid designer clothing in favor 1940s vintage, nor were there any multinational coffee houses to spurn in of favor fair-trade java from local roasters selling $50 refillable mugs.

Want a taste of snark?

Check out this hypothetical conversation between a mother and her 20-something son. She’s cleaning up after supper, he’s just walking in the door.

Mom: There’s plenty left over.

Son: What did you have?

Mom: (Gets out a plate.) Spaghetti. Here, sit down, and I’ll keep you company.

Son: (Takes the plate and leaves the room). Thanks. But I’m sure you have more important things to do.

Mom: (Winces, thinking, WTH??)

At first, the son seems considerate. But the way he twists her invitation into an insult is symptomatic of our current “click culture.” People have no qualms making giving quick, disparaging sound-bites.

This isn’t only hurtful. It’s wrong.

There could be any number of reasons why Sonny Boy doesn’t want to talk to his mother. Maybe she has bad breath. Or maybe he needs to hide the pot he just scored. But it could be that his brain has “forgotten” how to process serve and return conversation because all he’s done for the past six years is relate to a screen.

Did his mom raise him to be snarky? Probably not. But something happened to his brain when she wasn’t looking.

Now, if something doesn’t reward him fast enough, he doesn’t care about it.  Whatever “it” is.

Instead of engaging in relaxed conversation, he always appears “busy.” Engaged with a screen. Any affront to screen time feels just – wrong.

Responding to Princeton Professor Christy Wampole’s 2012 New York Times op/ed piece titled, “Living Without Irony,” writer Jonathan D. Fitzgerald defends hipsters as kids just trying to grow up in his Nov. 2012 article, “Sincerity, Not Irony, is Our Age’s Ethos. Fiztgerald’s article drew some interesting comments.

Here’s one that I liked, but to me, it still doesn’t hit the mark: The commenter begins by saying that irony may not even be the right word for the concept: how young people “dis” other’s thoughts and feelings with smart aleck remarks.

Instead, the commenter writes, “— it could be called ‘feigned self-awareness’ as a defense mechanism to preempt criticism.”

Now that’s a brain load: “Feigned self-awareness as a defense mechanism to preempt criticism.”

The explanation rings true but doesn’t quite hit the mark. girl-texting-photo-by-woohoo_megoo-on-flickr A brain used to skittering around willy nilly on the internet, social media, or computer games, expects rewards. Click. Click. Scene change. Change of subject. Score points. Score a “like.” Thumbs-up. Thumbs down.

But “real time” interaction doesn’t give the brain a quick fix. As a result, the brain experiences a type of withdrawal. It stands to reason a person would avoid that state.

According to Dunckley’s mini-course, when kids play electronic games, they release “feel good” chemicals (dopamine), and when they stop, they going into withdrawal, just like a drug addict.

What does this withdrawal look like?

It’s the seven-year old having a fit because Dad says it’s time to turn off the computer game and get ready for bed. “No! No! I didn’t win yet!” he howls.

It’s the 16-year-old who thumbs her cell phone to death laughing at a friend’s text messages, and then rolls her eyes and says she  tired when her mother tries to talk to her.

And it’s the 20-something snark monster who takes bites out of anyone who requests a few minutes of his time.

The snark monster avoids interaction. He would rather crawl into the closet with his computer than show empathy.  His attention span is as long as your pinky nail, and as a result, he doesn’t want to hear your story. He definitely doesn’t want to share his own, because real “face time” is  painful.

Remember my vignette?

The son’s indifference comes across like an accusation, as though his mother has Ebola or something. He doesn’t have the patience to listen to what she’s saying. It’s a drive-by. Not because he wants to preempt criticism, but because his brain probably isn’t wired that way anymore.

And that’s too bad.

So here’s the deal. We can’t have it all ways: kids who are cheerful and communicative, and also perpetually occupied by a wide-screen babysitter.

He’s a fascinating guy, this snark monster. But remember, feeding him can be a dangerous game. FFG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *