Is the Internet rewiring our kids' brains?

Brain_rewiring2 A U.K. neuroscientist says that the use of Twitter, Facebook and video games is forcing children's brains to go back to an "infant-like state".

Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield recently made this claim during a interview with the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

It's not the first time Greenfield has sounded the alarm regarding the potential negative side-effects of allowing kids to interact with technology. Earlier this month in a House of Lords debate, she claimed that "exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites could leave a generation with poor attention spans".

All of this sounds kind of scary, especially as it is coming from the person who heads up the Royal Institution, which according to its literature "is an independent charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science." Baroness Susan Greenfield, as she is known officially (which explains her presence in the House of Lords) is also Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford. With credentials like these, it's tempting to take her statements as fact.

And yet Greenfield has offered no evidence whatsoever to back up her claims.

Instead, she appears to hold these 'truths' as self-evident, citing only one anecdotal experience of a teacher of 30 years who had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her students to understand others.

Now I'm not a neuroscientist. I'm not a scientist of any kind. But as a concerned parent of two young children, who also happens to blog about technology on regular basis, I don't think it's unreasonable to demand proof when a respected member of the scientific community says:

My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment […] It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations

What is truly hard to see is why a scientist would publicly speculate about the cause and effect of potentially serious changes in our childrens' brains, without any scientific evidence.

Perhaps sensing that her statements needed more heft, Greenfield went a step further and proposed that there may even be a link between computer use and the increased rate of autism diagnoses:

Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering.

Hmm. Perhaps the point that is truly worth considering is how "screen relationships" can have any impact on a medical condition that is typically diagnosed before the age of 3. I don't know about other kids out there, but my 7-year-old only just discovered the joys of Nintendo's Wii. With the exception of a very brief and disappointing experience with the Webkinz site, he has had no interest in social networking whatsoever. To be fair – his parents haven't engaged in it much either.

At the end of the piece from the Daily Mail, perhaps as a way to avoid being labeled a complete Luddite, Greenfield says

I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people.

Again, I'm no scientist, but exactly who would our children be social networking with as a starting point if not the people with whom they already have 'real relationships'?

Just for the record, I actually think that the Baroness might be onto something here. It's perfectly reasonable to think that over time, consistent with the theory of evolution, the way we think and interact with one another will be influenced by the tools we use. A very amusing and quite insightful article was written not long ago about how Google might be making us stupid. It suggests that these changes may be happening faster than we think.

As a society, but especially as those charged with the responsibility of raising children, we need to be vigilant over the ways in which our kids interact with any technology. Just as it has never been a good idea to leave you children alone in front of the TV for hours, the use of the internet generally and social networking specifically, needs to be monitored.

Not because it's going to change our children's brains, but because there are very real threats that need to be guarded against. The case of the 13-year-old Megan Meier's MySpace suicide still haunts me.



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    The report was covered in the New Scientist where the reporter boiled the conclusion of the report down in a rather histrionic tone: “the internet has actually been the victim of some sort of vicious smear campaign.”