What Every Teenager Needs: Cognitive Control Online

The persona who tweets or posts online may not be the one who would get the job. So why do people act on the Web in ways that they would regret in real life?
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Thirty percent of college admissions officers have rejected applicants because of the students' posts on social media. One applicant had even sent negative, expletive-filled tweets about the school she applied to during her visit to the school -- not realizing the school routinely scoured the Web for reference to it.

This suggests a more general problem, one that affects applicants at businesses, too: The persona who tweets or posts online may not be the one who would get the job. So why do people act on the Web in ways that they would regret in real life?

In large part it's because the virtual world is subtly different from the face-to-face world -- ways that fool the brain into behaving in reckless ways. The problem resides in the design of the human brain. When we are talking with someone in person, the social circuitry of the brain automatically keeps what we say and do on track -- don't say that, do this, it tells us, guiding us to smooth interactions.

But the human brain does not adjust well to the virtual world, where it receives no feedback from another person's tone of voice, facial expressions, and dozens of other cues. This results in what experts call "cyber-disinhibition," where the impulsive circuitry of the emotional brain, usually kept in line by the social circuitry, is freed to express itself.

This has long been known as "flaming," classically the sending of a rude, angry or abrasive email that says something the sender would never say face-to-face with the receiver. Flaming has been around as long as the Internet, and now shows up in venues like Twitter and Facebook, let alone sexting.

This ups our need for what cognitive scientists call cognitive control -- particularly in the teen years, when the just-say-no circuitry of the prefrontal cortex lags behind the do-it-now circuits of the emotional brain. Cognitive control means we can reign in our impulses in view of the possible consequences.

Cognitive control can be taught -- it's a byproduct of attention-training in which kids and teens practice keeping their mind on one point of focus, and noticing when their mind wanders off -- and bring their attention back to that one thing. The results, neuroscientists find, is to strengthen brain circuits for concentration and for reigning in impulse and negative emotions.

And there's no reason teens can't do same. It just might help them get into the college of their choice -- and a job they want some day.

Daniel Goleman's new CD Focus for Teens: Enhancing Concentration, Care and Calm, offers exercises to help teenagers sharpen their attention skills while enhancing their emotional intelligence capability.

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