Is modern life messing with children's brains?

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Parents should be warned about dangers, charity boss claims

The head of a children's charity has called for a public awareness campaign to inform parents about the impact of technology on young people's brains.

Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, made the call amid claims that the unprecedented use of technology could result in a dangerous "mind change" for young people.

Outspoken neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield, a professor at the University of Oxford and a well-known critic of the impact of technology on the mind, told an early years conference in Edinburgh last week about what she believed were the dangers posed by the ubiquity of the internet, computer games and social media in young people's lives.

Although Lady Greenfield said this technology could create a generation of young people with high IQs and the capacity to process information efficiently, she warned they were also likely to be reckless, low in empathy and have short attention spans.

She added that technology was likely to leave them in constant need of feedback, suffering from a "dodgy" sense of their own identity and displaying low-grade aggression.

She described the phenomenon as "mind change"; like climate change, she said, it was "global, unprecedented, multifaceted and controversial".

`Potential threats'

In response, Ms Brock told TESS that it was vital to recognise both the benefits and drawbacks of the widespread use of technology, and called for an awareness campaign for parents.

"We are concerned when children don't have access to things like iPads and broadband because we recognise they are going to need these skills," she said. "But it seems clear we are not recognising the potential threats.

"We need a campaign that makes it clear there needs to be a balance between helping children make full use of the possibilities of technology but also remembering that children need to have socialisation. This issue is just as important as messages about reading to your child every night."

Parents should also be aware of the importance of putting down their phones and engaging with their children, she added.

Lady Greenfield said the human brain was expert at adapting to its environment, and warned of the dangerous consequences of the dominance of screen technologies. She went on to discuss the effects of violent video games on aggression and attention; social networking on the ability to read body language and to empathise; and links between "autistic-type behaviour and the screen".

The negative effects could only be countered, she argued, by emphasising reading, outdoor activities, creativity and understanding over processing information.

Giving children iPads had wasted millions of pounds that would have been better spent on teachers, she added.

The academic has proved to be a divisive figure, however, and it is not hard to find critics of her theories - not least for her failure to air her views in scientific papers for full scrutiny.

In a 2011 blog, Bad Science author Ben Goldacre said that although Lady Greenfield's arguments could be "superficially appealing", scientists should be allowed to scrutinise the "technical evidence" behind her theories.

However, Suzanne Zeedyk, a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Dundee also speaking at the conference last week, told TESS that Lady Greenfield was "asking important questions about the way we are all living today and the extent to which that might change our brains".

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