Author: Susan Greenfield
Date published: 9:31AM GMT 12 Feb 2010
Ignoring the dangers facing the screen generation is a dangerous approach, says Susan Greenfield.
One of the things that makes human beings so distinct, and so brilliant, is that our brains are constantly being rewired – a phenomenon known as “plasticity” which means that we can react to and learn from our surroundings. But, as a neuroscientist, there is a question that worries me: given that the brain adapts according to its environment, and the learning environment for our children has been changing in dramatic and unprecedented ways, could that have an unprecedented impact on their development in ways that might be adverse?
That certainly seems to be the message from research reported yesterday, which suggested that students are losing the ability to study properly. Constant use of the internet has rewired their brains to function differently from those of earlier generations: they skip from topic to topic in an “associative” mode of thinking, and are less capable of the linear thought required for skills like reading and writing at length. Some have even warned that the result could be greater rates of mental illness. Yet despite the danger that this could be a significant problem, there is a worrying unwillingness among some in the scientific world even to examine the claim.
Let’s start from what everyone can agree on. Computer games, social networks like Facebook, Bebo and Twitter, and our general ease of access to information online have changed the way we function. As a result, human beings may well be better at processing information rapidly than they were. IQ levels, for instance, have risen globally, and the new research by Prof David Nicholas (carried out for the final episode of the BBC2 series The Virtual Revolution, to be broadcast on February 20) seems to confirm the notion that we have evolved into competent information-grabbers. Young people in particular, he says, seem to “skip over a virtual landscape”, hopping from website to website to find facts: “Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long.”
Well, I can’t vouch for his study, but if what he says is true, it certainly matches my own hypothesis that young people may be at risk of losing the ability to gain real understanding. It’s a cliché that information is not knowledge, but there is much truth in that idea. Understanding requires the ability to relate one subject to something else – to place something in context. If, because of your development in childhood, you lack that contextual framework, then you can only take it at face value and move on. What you see is indeed what you get. You download information, but you cannot necessarily understand it.
When you read a book, for example, you go on a journey. There is a sequence imposed on you by the author. There is a beginning, and something follows from that – you are introduced to the characters, you begin to empathise with them, and so on. You have to read the book in a certain sequence, rather like a sentence itself, and the journey actually takes you somewhere.
Contrast this with a computer game in which a child must rescue a princess. There is no real empathy for the princess, only the buzz of the rescue itself and the process of the game. There is no long-term significance to the characters, because any consequences are reversible. Children don’t learn from their mistakes at all. Why bother when you can just click restart?
It is this emphasis on process rather than content which could affect the ability to learn. We don’t gain any sensational thrill from the physical turning of the pages of a book, or the black and white on the page, but by appreciating the content of the story: to care for the princess, and to hope that she is rescued.
In scientific terms, the way in which children become obsessed by the fight-or-flight arousal brought out by computer games is a very worrying phenomenon. This type of brain activity can be compared on a chemical level to the feelings related to the reward system in the brain, which are in turn linked to addiction to drugs or gambling. And for those concerned with social behaviour in the real world, the dangers of online social networks are even more noticeable. When you are growing up, you normally have to learn how to interpret someone else’s body language, how you pick up on their tone of voice. You might shake their hand, for example, touch their arm, and definitely look them in the eye.
If, however, you are not doing those things, or rehearsing those sorts of skills, they are going to be hugely stressful when you have to experience them. You might just choose return to the sanitised world instead, and to the safety of the screen, where you can relax in safety with your online persona – a much simpler, but massively less rewarding, existence.
One of the problems facing scientists who question the consensus – that the so-called “progression” of the screen generation cannot be halted – is that so many professionals simply refuse to accept the premise of the debate. Yet absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. For this reason, I and others will shortly be launching a new initiative, “A Brain For Life”, to examine fully the dangers faced by the screen generation. We hope it will receive the full support of the Government.
Baroness Greenfield is director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind at the James Martin 21st Century School, University of Oxford