Susan Greenfield: Living online is changing our brains
We need to talk about how the digital world might be changing our brains, says the neuroscientist and former director of the UK's Royal Institution
You think that digital technology is having an impact on our brains. How do you respond to those who say there's no evidence for this?
When people say there is no evidence, you can turn that back and say, what kind of evidence would you imagine there would be? Are we going to have to wait for 20 years and see that people are different from previous generations? Sometimes you can't just go into a lab and get the evidence overnight. I think there are enough pointers that we should be talking about this rather than stressing about not being able to replicate things in a lab instantly.
So what evidence is there?
There is lots of evidence, for example, the recent paper "Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder" in the journal PLoS One. We know the human brain can change and the environment can change it.
There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders. There are issues with happy-slapping, the rise in the appeal of Twitter - I think these show that people's attitude to each other and themselves is changing.
There's a recent review by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier in the high-impact journal Neuron, in which she says that this is a given, that the brain will change. She also reviews evidence showing there's a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children, linked to the pervasion of technology.
What makes social networks and computer games any different from previous technologies and the fears they aroused?
The fact that people are spending most of their waking hours using them. When I was a kid, television was the centre of the home, rather like the Victorian piano was. It's a very different use of a television, when you're sitting around and enjoying it with others, compared to when you are going up to your room and watching it until two or three in the morning on your own. So it is not the technologies themselves that I'm criticising, but how they are used and the extent to which they are used. I didn't say that technology rots the brain; I would never make a value judgement.
Digital technologies were vindicated, in terms of our wellbeing, by the Nominet Trust report last month. What are your thoughts?
I welcome this report. It is a thorough and comprehensive set of facts and information. But inevitably it can't reach firm conclusions. I think it should be used to ask further questions, rather than just saying "Phew, it's all OK then", because I think it's far from OK.
I haven't met one parent or teacher who doesn't think we should be talking about this. Just restricting children's access to the internet isn't very helpful. Instead, I would ask: "What can we offer children that is even more compelling, fulfilling, exciting?" We should be planning a 3D environment for our children [to enjoy] instead of putting them in front of a 2D one.
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