Can We Build Social Trust in an Online World?

For centuries, learning meant nurturing young humans to live together and in society. These are not skills kids can learn from screens.
Bill Softky, are screens bad for children, child brain development, child education news, how does the human brain develop, how does a child’s brain develop, effect of screens on children, effects of technology on children, online education COVID-19, neuroscience news

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For every reader who bothers to write to the author, there must be a hundred others. One reader, Paritosh, wrote to Fair Observer regarding one of my articles that invoked well-understood principles of neuroplasticity to explain how any learning system, child or artificial intelligence (AI) can be damaged by artificial inputs, like screens and online interruptions. For children to learn to trust their senses, they need instant interaction with the real world, just as authors need reader responses to correct their work. People form trust by interacting, not just by reading and listening. This is because we must learn to trust our senses before we can trust anything else.


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All growing nervous systems learn to trust their senses by interacting. To calibrate our models of the world, humans need to sense it with ultra-precise timing, in the microsecond regime. Digitization and compression destroy those microseconds. High-quality training data from the real world needs to come first, fast and furious, long before the weird stuff. Like vitamins, minerals, and oxygen early in life: too little, too late, too bad.

Trust-building interaction between scientists is why science works when it does. But few readers take the time to contact authors like me, and when they do, few authors can respond. Of course we can’t: The nature of broadcast is to limit reciprocity, one-to-many. Unfortunately, limiting reciprocity limits trust. To correct my earlier article, and to bolster trust in science through a dollop of reciprocity, please let me address Paritosh’s quite legitimate points in the order he made them.

A Polemic Against Online Education

Paritosh’s first claim was that the article is a polemic against online education. This is true. A polemic is an attack, and my article did indeed attack online education. But “polemic against online education” describes the article too narrowly. The word “polemic” doesn’t distinguish between a baseless attack based on aggressive opinion versus a self-evident description based on undisputed principles. My article made its case based on 10 universal principles of plasticity, first discovered in the 1950s by experimental neuroscience and later confirmed by harder disciplines like physics and computer science. I used these principles to scientifically characterize how real-life interaction enables children to learn, while online education prevents acquiring real skills.

Furthermore, my article was far broader, scientifically characterizing all forms of artificial input to children’s nervous systems. Decades of neuroscience and machine learning have established that a brain only matures properly — during its critical period — when exposed to the kind of inputs it was designed to, or evolved to, process. For growing human brains that means continuous sensorimotor interaction with real life and real people. Artificial inputs, especially the mesmerizing sparkles of screens and digital algorithms, disrupt and damage learning pathways.

I helped write the neuroscience research which demonstrates mathematically that even the very best screen-based interaction is degraded thousandfold to millionfold, and the worst is outright toxic. I’ve done the numbers. They’re scary, but most scientists and doctors don’t know about them yet.

The long-term damage is to trust. All humans learn to trust our senses and each other based on the incredibly data-rich, ultra-precise signals contained in real-life sensory-motor interaction. If our training data is corrupted by digitization, we fail to learn. Children reared by screens or computers cannot learn to trust each other — or even to trust their own senses.

No Solution

Second, Paritosh argues that my article contained no solution. This is also true. It’s hard enough to explain 70 years of neuroscience and its mental-health implications in “only” 4,000 reader-friendly words. That is already several times longer than most Fair Observer articles. I doubt anyone wanted an even longer article.

But there is a solution to education during COVID-19, one suggested by my research-and-life partner Criscillia Benford: skip screens, go outside. Outdoor education worked during the tuberculosis pandemic a hundred years ago, even in cold climates, so it can work again now. America has a burgeoning movement to promote outdoor instruction.

Conducting Classes During COVID-19

Finally, Paritosh wanted to know how could classes be conducted during COVID-19 if face-to-face learning is perilous? Now is the first time parents must choose between their children’s formal education and mental health. Until now, classes took place in real life, so kids automatically received both authentic sensory input and instruction together, at once. It wasn’t either-or. Instruction didn’t require exposure to damaging technology, and kids’ nervous systems benefitted from the real-life classroom experience.

But now, education and real life seem to be separable. I say “seem” because screens and technology are only healthy for adults whose nervous systems have already matured. Adults, having already learned to read subtle inflections and micro-expressions from people in person, can then use those skills to fill in human nuance in the gaps between pixels and frames. Children, who still need to learn that skill from real things and people, could never acquire it by looking at blinking pixels instead. Cameras and microphones, computers and carriers, speakers and screens subsample, skip, clip, compress, scramble and delay too much bandwidth and subtlety to nourish a growing brain.

Informational damage matters to growing nervous systems, especially when it’s subconscious. Our most critical processing is all subconscious, precisely because it runs too fast to track. But subconscious means we don’t feel the damage until it is too late.

The intrinsically mis-calibrating effects of artificial inputs on growing brains mean so-called educational technology cannot possibly work for children. There is no evidence it works. And there is evidence it doesn’t work, evidence it damages kids’ brains, and lots and lots of math which says it could never work in the first place. A mis-calibrated nervous system is broken, and can’t learn much of anything. It needs real life, and nothing but, until real life is etched into its very synapses.

Picture the first day of class. Faintly familiar voices echo in the hallways, shoulders and backpacks bump, squeals of recognition. Seated squirming, shifty silences as names are called, whispers in the back row. Every sound and motion coming from a live person, every reflection and echo three-dimensional. Those children’s continuous, overlapping, cacophonous, multisensory experiences aren’t a distraction from their development, not merely a prerequisite for it — they are the meat of it, comprising gigabytes of sensory-motor reflections digested reciprocally in real time. Those nano-interactions are the atoms of neuromechanical trust, which is, in turn, the substrate of any lesser form of trust. And trust, in turn, is the substrate of education.

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For centuries, learning meant nurturing young humans to live together and in society. Now it means passing standardized tests. Back then, learning meant training good habits and suppressing bad ones, supporting physical grace, mental clarity, moral fiber, social subtlety. Books and writing were optional, written tests unheard of. 

But as society scaled and learning morphed into education, optimizing the process required metrics and written tests. Standardizing education then required standardized tests, which, in the age of teach-to-the-test, become ever more meaningless, yet profitable, the longer they exist. In our current tragicomic situation, passing tests is so important that a handful of multiple choices can mark a child for life. Ironically, during a pandemic, we ask the child to forgo actual life in order to master online material. We behave as if test scores matter more than life itself.

The presence of COVID-19 changes the requirements of physical socializing, but not the requirements of growing nervous systems. In the classrooms of the future, will need more separation and airflow, but kids will still need to see and hear each other and their teachers with maximum sensory detail to learn the social instincts homo sapiens depends on. For supple social animals like us, physical and social interactions are not only more important than the “educated” skills of reading, writing, memorizing and calculating — they are required prerequisites. They have to come first for the others to work.  

So, in the future, children will learn social interaction bundled in blankets, in a tent or on a lawn in the sun as they have in many places for thousands of years. But they can’t learn social skills from screens, and making them try to is cruel. Lucky parents will send their kids to outdoor classes, not indoor isolation. But unlucky ones, faced with forcing their young ones to fixate for hours on a blinking piece of glass versus missing out on instruction and tests, must ask the hard question: Is my child a living, breathing being needing nurturing, or a receptacle for “content” that won’t stick?

For years, I have been talking with parents, teachers, scientists and readers like Paritosh about the dangers posed to human brains by attractive artificial inputs. For us to trust each other, we need authentic two-way interaction. But we also must agree on underlying principles. For me, I unapologetically choose uneducated but healthy children over educated but mentally miserable ones. To those who choose differently, I have nothing to say.

[Big tech has done an excellent job telling us about itself. This column, dubbed Tech Turncoat Truths, or TTT, goes beyond the hype, exploring how digital technology affects human minds and bodies. The picture isn’t pretty, but we don’t need pretty pictures. We need to see the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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