Could Facebook be a risk to your mental health?

Baroness Susan Greenfield is arguably Britain's best known neurologist. In 1994 she was the first woman to be invited to give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures and has subsequently made a wide range of broadcasts on TV and radio. She makes regular contributions to newspapers, has written several popular books on the brain and was once ranked 14th by Harpers and Queen's "50 Most Inspirational Women in the World". So, when she suggests that children who spend too much time on social networking sites could suffer from personality and brain disorders in later life we should probably take note.

The impact of technology on the brain has become something of an interest to Greenfield in recent years. In 2003 she published her first book on the subject: Tomorrows People: How 21st-Century technology is changing the way we think and feel. In this book she puts forward the argument that the "everything comes at a price" and that the price of the technology advances we are enjoying may be a change in the very nature of ourselves.

The book met with a great deal of opposition when it was published as, unlike all of her previous writings, it was not based on the solid foundation of research and empirical evidence, but on Greenfield's personal thoughts and ideas. It therefore comes as no surprise that it is Greenfield who should 'put her head above the parapet' to argue that social network sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter can physically "rewire" children's brains to change their personality.

In an interview with the Daily Mail Baroness Greenfield went on to say: "My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment."

In an even more contentious statement she went on to suggest that although there is no evidence to support the point, recent increases in child autism may be related to increased time spent on screen-based relationships.

Her arguments will, no doubt, find resonance with the same people who argue that violent video games are a contributory factor in many instances of violent crime. They will also strike a chord with parents and teachers who complain that many young people lack the ability to communicate or concentrate away from their screens.

But what is the basis of the argument and how valid might it be?

We know that our brains have developed over millions of years of evolution, with natural selection ensuring that we adapt to our surroundings. Greenfield's argument that: "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" therefore seems reasonable. But it should also be noted that the Internet is only 20 years old and social networking sites have only really become popular within the last 3-4 years - evolution takes generations.

But perhaps this is misunderstanding the point as we know that stimulation affects brain development within a single generation. For example, we know that certain periods of a child's life are of great importance in its neurological development. In one case, which Greenfield herself quotes in her book The Human Brain: A guided tour a child who had two perfectly good eyes had been made blind in one eye due to having that eye bandaged for two weeks while still a baby. Since the neurons serving the bandaged eye were not receiving any stimulation at a critical point in their development their functionality was lost with that area of the brain being invaded by active brain cells. Given evidence such as this of a 'use it or lose it' principle affecting neurological development, it may be that the quiet isolation of young people communicating primarily through a keyboard could indeed have a detrimental impact on their broader social skills.

Further support for this point is provided by various psychologists who argue that digital technology is changing the way we think. Educational psychologist Jane Healy points out that most games only trigger the 'flight or fight' region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning. She believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. And Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood, is quoted as saying "We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia. I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people."

Only time will tell whether Baroness Greenfield's concerns are valid, but in the meantime I certainly believe that she has earned the right to have her views taken seriously.

Please add your thoughts and comments to this article by clicking here to visit the associated item in the Brain Blog.

Click here to read the full interview at the Daily Mail web site.

Posted March 2009

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