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Published 22 October 2012 05:19, Updated 22 October 2012 11:14
Beware the trolls ... If some social media behaviours such as trolling make it into the workplace, businesses could find themselves employing a generation of people who think it is OK to say whatever hurtful things they want, in the name of free speech. Photo: Tim Wimborne
Do people troll at your workplace? It may not be long before a new generation, raised on Twitter and online games, starts changing the way people think and behave at work.
United Kingdom neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield says it is too early to tell exactly how “digital natives” are going to change our working culture, but we can be certain they will.
If you can imagine a world where people bring their online personalities to work, we could be facing a serious decline in social skills – at the very least.
Already the influence is starting to take hold. Greenfield says an unnatural hush has descended on office floors in skyscrapers around the world and that people tell her that office environments have become much quieter in recent years.
“People are texting each other rather than speaking to each other,” she says.
While social skills, eye contact and body language are skills that require practice, “it may be that in the workplace, people are finding it much harder to communicate face to face”.
It might be quiet among the desks, but silent communication online is incessant. “With digital natives, everything comes from outside, including your own identity. Being in communication with each other is all-important and, if you are not, you wouldn’t exist.”
In terms of civility, social media trolls often defend their relentless sledging by saying it is just a game, and that if you don’t like what people are saying you should just lock out strangers from your Facebook wall and Twitter feed. Or get out of social media altogether.
Just imagine what it would be like to bring those attitudes into work. You could have a generation of people who think it is OK to say whatever hurtful things they want, in the name of free speech.
If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.
“With human beings, you have always had people behaving in unspeakable ways to each other. This is the dark side of human nature. But normally, human society is constrained,” says Greenfield on the phone from the UK, where she is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, a neuroscientist, writer, and broadcaster.
On the internet, however, it seems all bets are off. Anything goes.
Whether people bring this behaviour into work is a matter of conjecture and, as Greenfield says, digital natives are only just starting to come into the workforce (depending on your definition of the generation).
But if your brain has been trained from infancy in immersive alternative worlds to understand that actions have no consequences and that completed tasks get instantly rewarded, you have to wonder about the impact on the adult.
Greenfield says it is a “no brainer” to accept that the online world will change our brains. People who deny this are like those who for years refused to accept that smoking had anything to do with cancer, she says.
Another issue for employers is the addictive nature of social media and online gaming. It can be very hard to hold someone’s attention if their eyes are constantly flicking to a screen.
Greenfield says the reason online games are so compelling is because the brain releases the feel-good chemical dopamine as a reward: “There’s an addiction to that reward.”
Computer apps have been developed to try and help people deal with their addiction. Freedom and Self Control are two such programs that block access to the internet for a defined period of time.
“The fact that these apps are flourishing means that people can’t do this for themselves,” she says.
Attentions are getting shorter. Greenfield says young people in particular are more likely to be continually distracted.
“They have Twitter on all the time, they switch over to it even while they are waiting for a phone call. People have to have inputs all the time.”
Employers in the private sector have been showing a great deal of interest in how this generation that was weaned on the internet will change their businesses, as employees and as customers.
“The nature of goods and services will need to change and the people who make them need to change.”
While we all have to adapt to the demands to be better, cheaper and faster, it is interesting to note that some groups are finding ways to fight back against the influence of the online world.
In the high-tech hub of Silicon Valley, some of the most powerful business figures in companies developing computer hardware and software are sending their own children to schools that eschew technology.
According to The New York Times, the chief technology officer at eBay sends his kids to the Waldorf (Steiner) School, which bans screens from its classrooms and frowns on the use of technology at home.
His children are joined there by the progeny of employees of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.
“Every hour you spend in front of a screen, you are not doing something else, like climbing a tree or giving someone a hug,” Greenfield says.
Greenfield is in the process of finalising a new book, Mind Change: How Modern Technology Is Changing The Way We Think, Feel and Dream. She will be a speaker at the Creative Innovation Asia Pacific 2012 conference in Melbourne on November 28 to 30.