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Business, Featured - Written by on Tuesday, February 24, 2009 10:25 - 10 Comments

Facebook is ‘infantilising’ the human mind

Here’s one for Don and the Net Generation team to chew on or chew up. Baronness Susan Greenfield, a professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, has warned that the experience of growing up immersed in hyper-stimulating digital technologies will result in human minds characterized by “short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”

The remarks were made to the House of Lords and written up by the Guardian as Greenfield criticized regulators for not taking into account the broad cultural and psychological effects of social networking.

Like others in the field, Greenfield asserts that exposure to digital technologies impacts brain development. “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. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world, ” she said.

But Greenfield draws decidedly less optimistic conclusions than those in Grown Up Digital.

“If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

“It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Excessive exposure to video games is also fostering a culture of instant gratification, says Greenfield:

“[with] a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. . . The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”

Finally, Greenfield worries that social networking sites may erode our sense of identity and even our ability to communicate through face-to-face conversation:

“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. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”

Greenfield seems eminently distinguished in her field and her warnings remind us that the psychological impacts of the digital revolution on children require more study. But Greenfield is also the author of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century technology is changing the way we think and feel (Penguin 2003), a dystopian novel about how everything we take for granted about human nature – imagination, individuality, memory, love, free will – could soon become lost forever as genetic modification, nanotechnology and cybernetics conspire to leave us in a ‘passive, sensory-laden state’. Makes me think that Greenfield has over-reached in her analysis of how digital technologies will influence society, culture and human nature.

Unfortunately, Greenfield’s dystopian pronouncements are likely to fall upon welcoming ears in the House Of Lords where ignorance about social networking technologies and the emerging youth culture could result in unwelcome new regulations.


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Carsten B.N.
Feb 24, 2009 15:34

These arguments seem valid, particularly for children and teenagers. The Web now overshadows real life in a way where thorough education should be provided to make one capable of using it for the best. The Web is huge and so it is possible both to get lost and get entangled into habits that were not at first intended.

However, I’m not sure the arguments really make invalid the society envisioned by Tapscott. Read an article as early as a few minutes ago, and he appears very set on the Web particularly being useful as a companion or an accessory to the real world. The way we interact in problem-solving will certainly change shape but I very much doubt his intentions are a society where everyone’s faces are glued to the screen all afternoon, although such a behavior is evident in many children, teens and young adults today

In fact, I’d say his arguments provide a very much positive alternative to the depressing lifestyle of being online on social websites 24/7, it encourages productivity, problem-solving and education.

Feb 25, 2009 6:41

ADD is a fad disease, if you want to know why drug prescriptions are so popular just do a quick tally on how many tickets to the opera, nights out to dinner, and other goodies the pharma corps hand out to doctors on the side (not that it would influence their decision in any way).

The regulators chafe at anything they can’t control, the Baby Boomers begrudge anyone younger than them for being willing to move with the times. Greenfield is an attention seeker who offers grist for the mill giving these people an excuse to destroy what they don’t understand.

Fortunately, attempts to turn back the clock inevitably meet with failure, but the War on Freedom is long.

Chris Gordon
Feb 25, 2009 11:32

Didn’t we hear the same thing about TV back in the 60′s?

Feb 25, 2009 19:30

No wonder kids crave computers there are none in their schools. The most exciting tool to learn with seems to be banned altogether. And don’t bring up the so-called “computer lab”, that’s the room with the big lock on the door with the obsolete computers and nobody using them because the teachers are afraid to go in there. And, as I have witnessed, this situation is very, very true in Europe and certainly in England.

The problem is that computers are mostly present at home during children’s free time. They equate computers with gaming (boys) and/or socializing (girls). If they had done six hours of screen time at school already, they might be OK to try something else.

The real challenge, in my opinion, is to incorporate technology with primary and secondary school teaching. How can we mix gaming, socializing and learning into one great exciting school experience? Kids don’t want to sit in a boring classroom with a boring adult lecturing them for hours about boring material on paper. I know I wouldn’t stand it! Honestly, I pity sending my two boys to school every day. They hate school! Yes, they use the word HATE.

But they’re brave and I do try to keep them motivated by, yes, bribing them with the video games that we play together. The classic solution is too often: be good at school and I’ll buy you some technology… a PS3, an iPhone, etc…

Now, some kids aren’t going to take this crap! So the teacher calls the parents to tell them: “Hey, guess what, your kid is not paying attention, he has A.D.D. It’s medical and you better call Dr. Quack.” Result: Doc drugs the kid, problem solved! Now, you have a passive kid who is still not learning… but at least he’s quiet. Is that the big solution? Personally, I don’t think so.

It’s the boring, mind-numbing, 19th century school system that is the problem! Not the computers.

Kids today want to interact. They need the physical contact of pressing keys and moving a mouse and seeing things happen as they do so. And they know the world is unfair to them because they know what YOU are doing. My kids ask me: what do you do all day? Well, I work on my computer. And mom? Well, she pretty much does the same thing. Now, they ask… Can I use the computer? And you’re supposed to answer: “No, you can’t, go play outside”. Gimme a break!

Kids should be on computers as much as we are. That adults spend too much time working, that’s another problem. But don’t blame the kids for wanting to mimick your behavior.

In my opinion, the solution is to literally tear down the existing schools and to build something radically new. Schools that are modern, intelligent and filled with state-of-the-art technology. All exercises should be done in front of a screen, same with tests. Lectures should be rich, engaging audio-visual presentations presented, movie like, by the greatest professors in the land. Papers should be written in groups where you can IM at the same time. Personally, I don’t believe that the present teachers should be teaching directly (too many are utterly incompetent), they should just guide the children through the day from one learning program or screening to the next.

This is what I would like to see politicians talk about instead of listening to Susan Greenfield’s idiocy. We live in a world where our leaders are OK with paying for bombs that cost millions of dollars EACH but won’t give a dime to Wikipedia, that has to beg every quarter to survive. How stupid can you get?

Social Networking «
Feb 27, 2009 13:16

[...] Neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, addressed the House of Lords this week, accusing such sites of, “infantilising” a generation, due to the declining need to interact and socialise face to face, whilst, across the pond, [...]

Mar 24, 2009 14:33

I’m not so sure that all this will result in such a horrible world. Here in the US, the younger generation is also more socially aware, more likely to volunteer time to charity organizations, more aware of and more active in solving environmental issues, more politically active than many of the previous generations. Shorter attention spans? Sure. But the world moves faster than ever–24 hour news, instant trades on the stock market, a whole world economy shattered in less than 6 months…so why would the younger generation NOT develop the short-attention span, quick-reacting skills to cope with such a world? I believe that there are digital inputs to growing up which are less than ideal (which this article and the study it references attempts to address), but that young people as a whole are starting to understand the consequences of not planning for the long-term–which is why social issues and environmental issues are so important, and why they are more active than their forebears. I believe that the actions of those who came before us (and I do not count myself as part of the “younger generation” any more…although I suppose I’m kind of in-between) and the consequences of those actions (environmental degradation, lack of sustainability, social unrest and inequality) are not lost on the younger generation. Although their ‘systems’ are wired for more quick reaction, they also fully understand the debt that we have gotten them into, both in terms of the finances that this nation (and the world) have been getting into as well as the larger social and environmental implications of the sheer lack of foresight and irresponsibility that previous generations have exhibited.

facebook is ‘infantilising’ the human mind «
Mar 25, 2009 18:31

Catherine Thorn
Apr 15, 2009 23:12

After reading through Greenfield’s comments to the House of Lords and reading through each of the comments on this page, I find that I disagree with each of Greenfield’s major points.

Greenfield cites short attention span as the negative effect of children’s increased immersion in the digital world; however, what some construe as a short attention span could stem from boredom that has resulted due to children’s improved ability to multitask and process information faster. Children today require a more stimulating learning environment in which interaction, rather than lecture-style lessons, is the major component. The world is changing to become faster-paced, and children are simply changing with it. If properly nurtured, these technologically-versed children, who can quickly process and analyze information, will grow up to successfully operate in the fast-paced business world.

In Greenfield’s argument about video games causing an expectation of instant gratification, she was not considering the advanced, complex games that are popular with gamers today. Greenfield speaks about the “buz of rescuing the princess” with “no care given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance.” Computer games today, however, often involve thousands of players from around the world that each create characters to play in the game’s world. These characters (and the people behind them) interact, make friends, and as a part of the game, impact the development of the world. World of Warcraft, arguably the most popular computer game, is an example of such a game. These games, in which actions cannot be reversed and the goals are often quite long term, will not cause children to expect instant gratification.

The underlying assumption of Greenfield’s final argument is that social networking sites, video games and similar technologies are replacing face-to-face communication and interaction in the real world. While social networking sites and video games would certainly cause harm to the development of children that engage in these activities to the exclusion of all else, using these technologies in conjunction with interacting and living in the real world is beneficial. Social networking gives children the opportunity to stay in touch with friends that move away and even to learn about new places through those friends. Similar to in the workplace, face-to-face interaction will not be supplanted by advancing technology, but instead, supplemented by it when face-to-face interaction would not have been possible.

IN-SOC: information society » facebook is ‘infantilising’ the human mind
Jul 11, 2009 17:26

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BIF-5: Second Session | Victory In Increments
Oct 9, 2009 19:26

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