Can the internet change kids’ brains in worrying ways?
2 parents have answered
Since the advent of the internet, some scientists and journalists have been telling us how dangerous it is. The most recent salvos have been fired by neurologist Susan Greenfield, who opines that it’s worryingly addictive and potentially damaging. Her latest piece is an alarmist diatribe against Facebook Home. In my opinion, this is her opinion presented as fact.
Scares like this are nothing new. Back in the 1830s, when novels began to swell in popularity, scaremongers of the day were filling column inches speculating that they might cause youngsters to isolate themselves, spurning society, fresh air and exercise in favour of burying their nose in a book. Concerns pretty much identical to those being voiced today. But who nowadays would complain that kids read too much?
She might be an eminent scientist, but Greenfield’s pronouncements follow a well-worn pattern of alarmism. She picks new and poorly known technologies, then dazzles readers with a mixture of expertise and easily digested ideas which, crucially, are based on academic ideas but seemingly have no evidence to back them up.
The ever-sensitive panic-buttons of parents are poked mercilessly. It’s become so predictable as to offer a rich source of satire.
Questionable journalism around neuroscience is depressingly common. Even the BBC is not immune. But all the offenders are united by their inability to produce solid evidence when challenged. That scourge of baseless science everywhere, Ben Goldacre, has been challenging Greenfield to do this for years, and has yet to even receive a reply.
As long as alarmism remains a reliable way to ensure readers, journalists without scruples will continue to peddle it. It’s up to us to make sure we’re informed enough to spot the nonsense and call it out for what it is.
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First, it's probably too early to tell. I'm not aware of large volume cohort analysis that's been done on children growing up through the advent of the internet, and given that it's appeal at mass to children is more recent, I suspect it will be a while before we see conclusive evidence one way or another. What early studies there are that I've seen are inconclusive.
What is already apparent, though, are concerning behaviours regarding addiction to the internet or social media. In that sense, it's not that the internet is bad, but behaviours that accompany addiction don't appear to be healthy. And the concern here is whether obsessive usage of the internet is damaging kids brains rather than whether the internet of itself is.
But even there it's too early to tell at a cellular level. Is it changing their behaviour? Sure. You only need to be a parent of a child who uses it compulsively to see that. The extreme tantrums from younger children when it is taken away (not comparable to taking away their favourite toys - way beyond that). The shortening attention spans. How activities that they once perceived as fun become less appealing when compared to the immediate satisfaction of an internet game. How when they need to find something out, they go do it in a way my generation could never have dreamed of. How they are teaching themselves things from Youtube (such as playing the piano in my son's case) and taking it for granted that pretty much anything they want to learn can be learned. So for better and for worse, their behaviours and their expectations are changing. But whether that's translating to a changed brain... I suspect the studies are still to come.