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No need to ‘techno-panic.’ Digital technology isn’t destroying our children’s brains

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
“We need to recognize that use of the Internet and digital technology has cognitive and social benefits and to balance these against any risks,” British academics Bell, Bishop and Przybylski conclude.

You may not have heard of the British neuroscientist (and baroness) Susan Greenfield, but it’s likely you’ve heard of her controversial ideas.

Greenfield is one of the principal promoters of the idea that the Internet, social media and video games are having harmful and long-lasting effects on our children’s cognitive abilities, emotions and behaviors.

She’s even linked Internet usage to autism.

These claims by Greenfield, who’s a senior research fellow at Oxford University, are not backed up with good science. Nor has she personally published any research on the topic. (Her specialty is neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, not developmental neuropsychology.) But that hasn’t stopped her from issuing dire warnings about the neurological consequences of digital technology, including — or especially — in her best-selling book “Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains.”

And, yes, that title is a play on the term “climate change.” Greenfield believes that digital technology may be altering the human brain in ways as dramatic and unprecedented as climate change is transforming the Earth’s environment.

But, unlike with climate change, there’s no evidence to support the idea that the 21st century is experiencing a “mind change.”  Scientists have repeatedly asked Greenfield to publish her claims in peer-reviewed scientific journals so that they can be reviewed and assessed by other scientists, but she has so far declined to do so.

That refusal has understandingly left many in the scientific community incredibly frustrated. After all, Greenfield’s ideas have now become embedded in some recesses of the public’s consciousness — a factor that has led to techno-panicking by many parents, educators, government policymakers and others. 

Looking at the evidence

In an editorial published Wednesday in the journal BMJ, three British academics — Vaughan Bell, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at the University College London; Dorothy Bishop, a developmental neuropsychologist at the University of Oxford; and Andrew Przybylski, a researcher in experimental psychology at the Oxford Internet Institute — replace the fear-mongering with facts.

They explain why Greenfield’s assertions about digital technology’s harmful effects on the brain “are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large.”

Take, for example, Greenfield’s claim that Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites could negatively affect social interaction, interpersonal empathy, and personal identity.  “The bulk of research does not support this characterization,” write Bell, Bishop and Prezybylski.

With regard to social interaction and empathy, adolescents’ use of social networking sites has been found to enhance existing friendships and the quality of relationships, although some individuals benefit more than others. The general finding is that those who use social networks to avoid social difficulties have reduced wellbeing, while use of social networks to deal with social challenges improves outcomes. In terms of affecting personal identity, Facebook is the most widely used social network and the best studied, and evidence suggests that people generally portray their identity accurately.

And what about Greenfield’s conjecture that online interaction may “trigger” autism or “autistic-like traits”?

“This claim has no basis in scientific evidence and is entirely implausible in light of what we know of autism as a neurodevelopmental condition that can be first diagnosed in the preschool years,” write the authors of the editorial. “Her claims are misleading to the public, unhelpful to parents, and potentially stigmatising to people with autism.”

Then there’s Greenfield’s claim that video games can lead to impulsiveness, short attention spans and aggression. 

The actual research, write Bell, Bishop and Przybylski, “give a much more nuanced conclusion.”

Evidence suggests that playing action video games produces a small improvement in neuropsychological performance, even when only the most stringently designed studies are considered. The effects of violent video games are still debated. Evidence exists for a small, transient increase in aggressive thoughts and behaviour, although there are concerns about the quality of the evidence underpinning this assertion. Nevertheless, generalisations about video games are unlikely to be helpful because multiplayer cooperative games are increasingly common, and evidence suggests these kinds of games might lead to an increase in socially beneficial thoughts and behaviour. This shows that content is important in terms of the potential emotional and behavioural influence of gaming.

Overshadowing valid concerns

There are some valid concerns about digital technology’s effects on children. Its overuse can displace important developmental activities like physical exercise, for example. And it also raises safety concerns that deserve the attention of parents, educators and policymakers, especially in regard to online bullying and sexual grooming by child predators.

“Nevertheless, we need to recognize that use of the Internet and digital technology has cognitive and social benefits and to balance these against any risks,” Bell, Bishop and Przybylski conclude.

“We think that it is unfortunate that Greenfield’s media profile means her claims have an exaggerated impact on pubic debate given their limited evidence base,” they add. “… The public deserves to participate in the debate fully informed of all the evidence.”

You can read the editorial in full at the BMJ website.

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