The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

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?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

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.

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Can only an expert deal with a problem?

According to a man I worked with in a former life, in an insurance company,  the definition of an expert is:

  • ‘X’ is the unknown quantity, and
  • A ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure

Oh how we laughed. . . the first time! No so, for what seemed like the million repeats.

Repetition is at the heart Laurie Anderson’s song ‘Only an expert can deal with a problem’. So I guess an expert may just be someone who spends a lifetime saying the same things over and over again. When a bit of research was carried out on Oprah viewers, one of most popular definitions of ‘expert’ was ‘some one who has written a book’. This didn’t necessarily mean a well-researched, evidence-based book, but more a personal account of  their problems.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we see or hear an expert on TV or in the media that the selection process is not so stringent as one might think. I once asked a radio producer why he favoured one particular self-appointed media analysist (with a religious emphasis) over the official regulating bodies such as Ofcom or the BBFC? The answer came: because they are easier to get hold off and more willing to talk on local radio. So the expert may not be the best one for the job,  just the closest and most amenable.

(There’s also a lot of truth in Anderson’s song, that only an expert knows how to create a problem too).

Evidence-based psychology has so much to say about the human endeavour but is often not see so ‘sexy’ as pop psychology and ‘experts’ without any ethical code, who can say and do just about anything that makes good TV. It’s wise to be wary of ‘experts’  (X-spurts) who invent syndromes that can be cured by buying a particular product, or experts that claim that they can ‘reprogram’ your mind. Also, beware of experts who claim they can read a celebrities mind just be looking an an intrusive pap-snap. They can’t. Body language needs to be viewed in context and if they are a member of The British Psychological Society (BPS), they are not supposed to be doing it anyway.

Each of us has the answers to our own problems, and it sometimes need a qualified professional to provide the strategies to draw those solutions out of us.  If you decide you need an expert to assist you, make sure you check out their credentials. Do they actually have any qualifications? Where did they get them? If someone has a PhD from some obscure, Internet-based organization, it might not be worth a damn. For instance, in Britain, all PhD theses have to be filed with The British Library. However, that is only from accredited Universities. Also, beware of how experts refer to themselves. A qualification in NLP or hypnotherapy no more entitles them to call them psychologists as owning a steak knife entitles anyone to call themselves a surgeon. (There’s little or no evidence that NLP lives up to the bold claims of it’s more enthusiastic practitioners).

The upshot is, if you need an expert to help you solve your problems, make sure your experts have the qualifications, the tools and the skills for the job, not that they are just the first in the phone book or the closest to you. Don’t be afraid to check them out and ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then move on!

Here’s a video of Laurie Anderson performing the hypnotic ‘Only An Expert’ (sung in English with French subtitles):