Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at University of Oxford, has been in the news a bit recently. She’s being getting a lot of coverage due to her views on the (possible) effects of computer-based activities on children’s mental development. The most striking claims are that the use of social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, can lead to autism and/or shortened attention span, and more recently that playing computer games can cause dementia and alter risk-taking behaviours.
These claims have attracted a lot of criticism from bloggers and fellow scientists alike for, amongst other things, being totally unsupported by any peer reviewed research and contradictory to known biological effects. Baroness Greenfield has responded at various points by accusing her detractors of stifling open debate and likening them to those who denied a link between smoking and lung cancer. She also asserts that she’s ‘just asking questions’, which prompted an inventive stream of similarly spurious links on Twitter (#greenfieldism). The serious point behind the humour being that, without any evidence behind, it is just as valid to juxtapose internet use and autism as it is to link Rebecca Black and the Greek sovereign debt (courtesy of @alsothings).
A similar thing happened when Glenn Beck started ‘just asking questions‘, which lead to counter questions about Glenn Beck’s personal history. Although this was an overly extreme question with which to respond, it does highlight the danger of suggesting causal links without any empirical support whatsoever.
Putting unsupported claims in the spotlight to push personal viewpoints about computer games and social media, especially when they’re packaged as scientifically validated ideas, is a dangerous path to lay. The effect of technology use on brain development is clearly an important topic to consider, but any guidance must have some scientific proof behind it. Even a single study that has been through the peer review process and published in an academic journal is not enough to make the sort of bold claims Susan Greenfield has made . Only once hypotheses have been discussed, repeated, followed-up, tested on different groups by other scientists do theories start to become accepted (or rejected) by the scientific community. Baroness Greenfield hasn’t even got as far as the first step.
Tentative evidence can be found to suggest we need to seriously consider the effect of increased computer activity, such as whether violent computer games can alter brain activity and wiring. These types of studies, however, are fraught with potential confounding factors – do violent computer games change the brain activity of gamers or are gamers with particular types of brain activity more drawn to violent computer games? This is why a body of evidence is needed to eliminate these confounding factors and tease out the true causal link.
Parents have a hard enough time in drawing out the best advice, many of which appears to be based on personal opinion and gut-feeling, and so a scientist making raising serious doubts without going through the proper scientific process first can only add to anxiety and confusion. These effects are often long-lasting too. While Andrew Wakefield’s dodgy claims about the link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been thoroughly refuted by the scientific community, culminating in the original research paper being retracted and Dr Wakefield being struck off the General Medical Council register (see this for a brief history), doubts linger in parents’ minds and huge efforts are still being made to bring the vaccination rate up to the required level (e.g.).
Technology now available to children provides unparalleled access to information resources, creative tools and network sharing, and my inclination is that this is A Good Thing for broadening and challenging the mind (see Carmen Gets Around for a similar conclusion). Of course, I await the evidence to support this, but one thing is clear, computer technology has changed the way our kids behave forever. Just watch this YouTube clip…