Does social networking rot the brain?

February 25, 2009


Social networking rots the brain acording to one lurid headline, citing research to back up the statement. Are we facing a neuro-crisis, or is this another example of bad science?

Just when I was getting into social networking I learn of dire warnings of its impact on the malleable brain. Or, getting behind the headline, the possible consequences for young people who spend too much time on the internet.

The publicity seems to have come from two fronts. One is from an empirical study by an American researcher, Dr Aric Sigman. The other is from a campaign led by the distinguished neuro-scientist Baroness Greenfield.

Professor Sigman’s website presents his perspective, and makes mention of its misrepresentation:

The original paper, Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’ is published in the Spring edition of Biologist, Vol 56(1), the journal of the Institute of Biology. NOTE: This paper has been misrepresented by many news reports as claiming that social networking causes cancer or disease. This is not true. The paper addresses the extent to which time online may be displacing face-to-face contact, and that lack of social connection is associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality.

Professor Greenfield’s position was reported in the Telegraph:

Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said she has concerns that internet-obsessed children were losing the ability to concentrate and communicate away from the screen.

Regular web users displayed a need for constant reassurance typical of small babies, she said yesterday.

In an earlier House of Lords debate she warned that conversations in chat rooms, message boards and on networking websites were replacing the face-to-face interactions that are key to developing a child’s sociability.

“I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,” she said.

“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.”

Earlier this month Baroness Greenfield urged more research into a possible connections between high computer use among young people and the rising rates of autism.

Teenagers spend an average of 31 hours a week online, research suggests. Social networking sites that allow young people to keep in touch with their friends, publish photos and post updates on what they are doing are particularly popular.

Scientists are divided about the mental consequences of the digital revolution; a study published last year showed that internet use could improve brain function and speed up decision-making but at the expense of empathy and the ability to think in abstract terms.

The debate rages on

The debate raged on into the BBCs Newsnight programme [Feb 24th, 2009]. Aric Sigman appeared with Ben Goldacre [author of Bad Science and the Guardian column of the same name] to discuss the claims being made.

Interestedly, The Guardian had made its own summary of Professor Greenfield’s account without supplying a comment from their own in-house expert on science and its public interpretation.

Unabashed, Ben expressed his perspective coherently and chirpily on a programme that can reduce intelligent commentators to gibbering apologists under the baleful influence of moderator Jeremy Paxman.

Overall, it became clear that some clarification of position was emerging. The media had exaggerated the claims being made of the implications of Sigman’s study. Baroness Greenfield does appear to have been blurring the boundaries between scientific comment and social campaigning. Ben Goldacre has the potential to become a media celebrity unless he is more careful of the invitations he accepts …

Thought leaders and the influence process

I am struck by the episode and its illustration of the influence processes exercised by thought leaders such as Baroness Greenfield, Professor Sigman and creative gadflies like Ben Goldacre. It deserves study for students of leadership and of influence processes in the management of change.

Reading the Sigman paper, and following the subsequent debate brings to mind the MMR vaccine controversy and the tragic consequences which followed. Sigman’s paper is couched in the cautious writing of the professional medical scientist. But in my view, it is also marred by its tendency to develop implications (including mention of cancer risks) which are too easy to be picked up and interpreted as proven findings.