You know the deal: a social phenomenon rises from obscurity to international familiarity within the blink of an eye. Pitchforks are sharpened, torches lit, and higher thought goes out the window. Elvis Presley’s hips, the skin revealed by a bikini, Harry Potter’s sorcery – you would think by now we’d have learnt to occasionally sit back and thoughtfully stroke our collective chin before writing the eulogy for humankind.
You’d be wrong: an editorial published in the BMJ today highlights one more example of our societal knickers getting into almighty knot.
The editorial focuses on Professor Susan Greenfield, British scientist and high-profile commentator, who has been publicising the idea that internet use and video games have harmful effects on children’s brain and behavioural development.
Her views are so strident that her recent book, Mind Change: how digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains, draws deliberate parallels with climate change, arguing the two issues are of equal importance to our collective future. Greenfield’s dire predictions on the future of children’s brains are shocking, not least because of how flimsy the evidence is to support these views.
The (Lack Of) Evidence
One claim is that social networking media can negatively affect children’s sense of personal identity, and also how they develop empathy within friendships. Even more controversially, Greenfield has drawn a link between social media use and the development of autism.
However, a large amount of research in this area has found that adolescents’ use of social networking sites often enhances the quality of existing friendships. It has also been found that most adolescents actually portray their identity quite accurately on Facebook.
What’s the big deal, you may ask, isn’t this just harmless theorising? I strongly disagree. The purported link between social media and autism, which is without evidence and scientifically implausible, is insulting at best, and breathtakingly stigmatising at worst.
Another Greenfield claim is that intense use of video games may lead kids to become aggressive and have shorter attention spans. Again, this view needs far more nuance than is being presented. One recent review, for instance, found playing action video games may actually provide a small improvement in cognitive abilities.
The evidence linking violent video games and aggression in kids is not clear-cut. Some studies have found the playing of violent video games can lead to small, short-term increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviours. But questions have been raised about the quality of this evidence.
The sacrifice of physical activity for more screen time is a real concern that’s in grave danger of being overshadowed by a hyperbolic discussion about how technology damages kids' brains. Lighttruth/Flickr, CC BY-NC
These particular studies also don’t consider the social benefits that can come with gaming. Playing video games isn’t the socially isolating experience that it once was, and the friendships and social learning of multiplayer gaming can also be very important.
This, of course, is not to downplay other concerns that may accompany the increased use of social media and video games among children. Cyber-safety and the sacrifice of physical activity that accompanies more screen time are legitimate, evidence-based concerns with which parents need to engage.
But these important issues are in grave danger of being over-shadowed by a hyperbolic and evidence-light discussion that frames technology as damaging kids’ brains. There is little evidence for this view.
Scientists And Their Responsibility
Perhaps the biggest issue this kerfuffle raises in my mind concerns the responsibilities of scientists.
There’s no admission ceremony to become a scientist, no Hippocratic-like oath, no hand placed on a holy book while pledging to uphold this or that. There’s no need for any of this, because without following the fundamentals of science, you are, quite simply, not a scientist.
At the very core of science is the judgement of theories in light of available evidence. Scientists are humans. We have our own beliefs and prejudices, and at times it is near-on impossible to divorce ourselves from these.
That’s why the only kingmaker in science is evidence: objective, irrefutable observations. For every scientific theory proven through observations, there are dozens that lie shattered on the floor. And that’s how it should be.
Scientists can and should play a role in public discourse, particularly with issues of such importance as the impact of technology on children. At the very least, a scientist’s voice should – hopefully – add a dispassionate dimension to a very passionate debate.
There is currently little evidence that internet use and video games create “mind change” in kids. The only thing needed to change this position is evidence to the contrary.