Don’t raise fools: How to prepare kids for life on social media

Should kids be on social media? If yes, what are some good rules to have?

Virginia Heffernan: Watching children in early adolescence and in adolescents is always internally heartbreaking for adults. There was a great article in The Times magazine about Christmas maybe 20 years ago that the power of the Christmas mystery is when you look at a child the same way in the story that the Virgin Mary looked at her new son the Christ child and thought simultaneously, “This child might save the world and he's going to die.” So this huge amount of hope we have for our children and this terror that they're going to die. 

If my mother looked at me at 13, if she read my diaries about how eagerly I wanted to be popular it would sound very like someone courting likes on Instagram. I knew if my outfit didn't go over well and I knew the way that a 13-year-old might pull down a photograph of it on Instagram if it doesn't get enough likes not to wear that again. Or I decided not to wear that again because being liked was the most important thing in the world to me at that age and for a reason. You want to know how you're going to play in the world. You want to know how to be in the world, how to show up in the world and you're testing and learning what works for you. And by the way, it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking when people don't like you or invite you to a party. And similarly it's heartbreaking now when you don't get the response you crave online, or you get a response that's out of proportion to what you did. But taking the risk – let's just take the simple Instagram brings up fears of narcissism because we're in a heyday of self-portraiture, which we've been in before. There have been other times where people sat for portraits or painted themselves. Van Gogh's self-portrait is rarely regarded as a work of narcissism. But let's say that we have this popular form that is these self-portraits. Staging them; taking the photograph; taking many photographs; choosing the right photograph; cropping it; coloring it; and then distributing it immediately to this giant gallery space. And then, like every artist, trying to see who buys it, trying to see who's interested in it, trying to see if it sells and trying to see what kind of commentary they get on it.

A lot of people who post self-portraits, and this was true in the early days of YouTube with musicians, are actually looking in some cases for critical feedback. Remember the hot or not thing where photographs were posted and you could decide I like I don't like it? That, which also plays in the right and left swipe of Tinder, is something that we're courting like does this work? Does this work? I'm in beta right now. Do I talk loud enough? Do I talk too loud? That incredible self-consciousness of are my bangs a little too short? Are my eyes big enough? Or how can I inhabit this body that I'm in and fit the exigencies of social life, fit the exigencies of a party or a workspace or, by the way, opt out of it? There are plenty of kids who are dialing back and we see them in millennials a return to flip phones or to abstinence from computers from the Internet and I think that's a very interesting.
The last thing I'll say when you talk about teaching my own kids, I feel very strongly that we can't adopt a "true love waits" abstinence program about screens. The idea is not to teach your kids never go to parties; never live in social space; avoid other people. Like learning to live in digital space is not unlike learning to live in social space. And it's what kids want help doing. I remember my mother teaching me this incredibly subtle social lesson, which is when you're describing a party that you went to but another friend didn't get invited to, don't say the party was terrible. Don't say they missed nothing. Don't say it was awful. It's disingenuous. It's not fair to the host and it's condescending to the person you were talking to. Anything that you were left out of was awful. So I metabolized that lesson, I remember it was a sleepover and I was eight years old. Those are the kind of lessons you teach your kids online. Are you going to be the kind of person that posts a topless shot on Instagram? Well, that has certain requirements. That's going to have certain consequences. Let's go through what those consequences are.
Are you going to post in all caps? Are you going to use Twitter a lot? Are you going to use Pinterest a lot? If you use Pinterest what are you going to use it for? What is the buy button about? How much are you using this to tee up purchases? And what are you going to do with that debt? How are you going to afford those things? What are you going to do with the part of the Internet that shows your credit card debt say? These are experiences that ought to be embraced with confidence, ought to be embraced with confidence not as though the party, the people, the city streets, the whatever are simply terrifying and the only thing to do is lock your door against them. But to show up with – the women I know got advice from their mother: that's too much black eyeliner, that's too much hair dye. 

I remember when I pierced my ear the second time my mother said that's a prelude to getting a tattoo. I didn't agree with her. I didn't agree with her. I decided that I would do it anyway and wear a second earring in that ear. And that was okay but there are certain things that you say to your kid. Like my son just chose his Gmail name and he decided to use his whole name like his first, middle and last name because it showed up no one else had it. And that is a lot of letters to type in, he's got a long name to type into Gmail all this time. And I asked him, "You may have a lifetime of signing into things with your Gmail address. Do you really want to be typing all those letters?" He said, "yes."

When he chose his avatar for Google he took a million pictures of himself. He's ten years old and he opted to have one of those executive pictures leaning way back for lots of like authority and alpha maleness. And I asked him, "You're ten years old don't you want to be like a little cuter and more childlike?" And he said, "Absolutely not. I'm going with the executive picture." And that was a good strategic decision for him I think, a good artistic decision for him. Empowering our kids to think like artists, to think like writers, to think like novelists. They are creating an avatar online. You don't want to be like you don't necessarily want to be some Pollyanna avatar who only posts great things about her life, or maybe you do. Or do you show up all the time vague looking and writing sad sap posts and talking really vulnerably like a memoirist. Maybe. But those are choices that have consequences. And at that level of detail, kids by the way, we all do it in our lives with Facebook. Anyway, that level of detail you teach kids.

Should kids be on social media? The kneejerk reaction, for some parents, is to control what they do. But journalist Virginia Heffernan thinks that how children and teenagers use social media is how we all use social media — we're just too proud to admit it. Those of us that use social media inevitably are painting an avatar of personality online, testing what works and what doesn't, and through fine-tuning our own selves in the process. It is absolutely true that you can fall victim to narcissism if you follow the "like" economy to its fullest, but a healthy attitude towards social media can lead to some old-fashioned self-exploration that many older folks may have forgotten about. Because young people know... perhaps more than adults... that you have to try on a lot of metaphorical hats before you find the one that fits. Virginia Heffernan's latest book is Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.

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After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.