Screen use is bad for brain development, scientist claims

children playing on their phones
Image caption Susan Greenfield argues that "screen time" affects development of the brain

Before my meeting with controversial neuroscientist and renowned social media cynic Susan Greenfield, I do two things - post a Facebook "check-in" from her base at Oxford University (which attracts five "likes" and a direct message), and mention her on Twitter.

I have a feeling I am exactly the kind of person she is concerned about.

Creativity, imagination, self-esteem and even our basic ability to process information could be sacrificed at the virtual altar of what is known as "hyperconnectivity", Baroness Greenfield claims.

She is so convinced that she compares the situation to the early days of climate change.

In a newspaper article last month she argued that the constant opportunities to connect offered by social networks such as Facebook could result in a generation for which "the mind might remain more child-like, reactive and dependent on the behaviour and thoughts of others".

The peer may have received much recognition during her career as a scientist, including 30 honorary degrees, and appointments from the Queen as CBE and the French government as a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur, but she is not getting many "likes" from the online community for her alarming claims that society's love affair with all things screen-based - from video gaming to social media - may be significantly altering the development of the brain.

Image caption Baroness Greenfield compares the current situation to the early days of climate change

'Snapshot' of research

The professor claims not to read blogs and online discussions about her or her work, responding only to those who choose to contact her in person - thus neatly side-stepping many of her more vocal critics.

So I tell her they argue that there is no conclusive evidence to back up her claims, and that her media appearances on the subject amount to little more than public scaremongering.

Lady Greenfield thrusts towards me a list that's several pages long, containing the details of 250 research papers, newspaper articles and book titles that she used as sources for her next book, due out in July.

A lot of them are specifically about Facebook and video gaming, and their relation to everything from the release of the brain's "mood" chemical dopamine to living alone.

She says this list isn't exhaustive but enough to create " a snapshot" of contemporary research.

'Contradictory evidence'

Dr Pete Etchells, lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, is an open critic of Lady Greenfield's theory.

He claims there are overall issues with the quality of research in this area.

"We don't really have that many good longitudinal studies," he says.

"If you do scholarly searches for articles looking at things like the cognitive effects of video games there are hundreds of studies out there.

"The problem is that some aren't very good. Researchers are trying to get a handle on the right sorts of questions to ask. So, the evidence tends to be contradictory."

That much is clear. Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman wrote in the Archives of Diseases of Childhood last year that advice from medical professionals to limit children's screen time was "becoming unequivocal", and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two have no screen time at all.

But in March this year, the Medical Research Council in Glasgow published the results of a large study involving more than 11,000 children, which explored possible links between behavioural problems and screen time spent by children.

It found little direct connection between the two once other factors such as parental attitudes and wellbeing had been taken into consideration.

Brain plasticity

One major sticking point for the scientific community is that Lady Greenfield has never published a research paper of her own on the subject for peer review.

She claims it isn't because she disagrees with the process itself - "you can fault any paper but that's what science does," she says - but because she doesn't feel she can do the whole theory justice in a single piece of work.

"How can I publish just one paper?" she retorts.

"Does [atheist] Prof Richard Dawkins have one paper which sets out why God doesn't exist? Tell me one experiment I should do that proves once and for all whether computers are evil for the brain."

The crux of Susan Greenfield's theory is brain plasticity, the human brain's ability to evolve to adapt to its surroundings. It is largely held to be scientifically credible - and also fairly ubiquitous.

"The whole way that we learn anything is through our brain changing and adapting to our surroundings," says Dr Etchells.

"If I read a book it will change my brain, if I go to work it will change it."

Image caption People are "living online, offline" says Lady Greenfield

It's the question of whether, in the case of computing devices, the change is likely to be for the better or worse that is dividing opinion.

Lady Greenfield insists that she has not publicly come down on either side of that fence but given the comparisons she makes to climate change and even smoking, it is clear she is not optimistic.

Screen benefits

"On balance, there are some benefits [to screen behaviour], but there are also some undesirable [side-effects], and to ignore that is unhelpful," she tells me.

There are some wonderful examples of the remedial benefits of computer games, she says.

There are also indications that gaming can be linked to higher IQ - in fact, she is working on a video game herself, to educate young people about the workings of the brain.

"Erm, isn't that a bit hypocritical?" I ask.

"It's not about the channels, it's about how they are used," she replies.

Social networks are democratising society like never before, she continues.

"Facebook satisfies identity, it gives you a status that isn't linked to wealth or gender," she says.

Image caption Apps such as Facebook Home make people even more "hyperconnected"

"The poor student can have more followers than a millionaire."

Lady Greenfield says that the cost of attracting this virtual crowd, whether on Facebook or Twitter or via a blog, is to surrender unprecedented degrees of privacy.

'Put technology back in its place'

"Respect for privacy is evolutionary," she says.

"Young people don't realise how important it is. The more information you give away, the more vulnerable you are.

"For the people following, it's like watching a soap opera. But I think there is something troubling about those who want to lay bare something very personal."

Susan Greenfield recalls a breakfast meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, at which she observed that one person attending was so busy tweeting about being there she was not paying attention to the meeting itself.

"We are living online, offline," says the professor.

"We are reporting what we're doing, not actually having the experience."

Ultimately, the baroness argues that society needs to put technology "back in its place".

"Old technology was a means to an end - a car was designed to get you from A to B, a television was there to entertain the family," she says.

"Now the cyber-lifestyle is an end in itself."

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