Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote? Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?
At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch. But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing. It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.
As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not. So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!
Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.
Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact. In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.
So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?
Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time – our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?
We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind. So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared? Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of a good story.