Another day, another screaming Daily Mail front page:
Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned.
Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred.
The claims from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day.
It turns out this isn’t exactly a new position for Greenfield. This review of her book, iD (subtitled “The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century”), puts her concept plainly:
Her thesis is that a life lived vicariously in front of a screen is less enriching than one lived within the pages of a book. Children who watch TV, play computer games, rip off Wikipedia for prep and spend the few hours left to them texting their friends are going to be fundamentally altered
Also worth reading is a long interview she gave to the Independent at the time the book came out:
Young Susan experimented on her brother, too. “I bullied him,” she admits. “I made him [learn] Shakespeare […] He was three.” Three years old and reciting Macbeth? “He had no idea what he was saying. He just did what I told him. I thought it was funny.”
Greenfield was a reader as a child. So much so that her mother asked the doctor’s advice, thinking something must be wrong.
So someone who read so much she worried her parents now thinks that interacting via the screen is so harmful she’s causing others to worry, and who admits bullying - at least, toying with - her younger brother thinks that “the Facebook generation” will be self-centered and not think about other people?
Now, I’ll admit I’m probably not being fair (the phrases “ad hominem” and “straw man” spring to mind), but then, neither is the Mail. After all, as the Independent interview also says,
Greenfield is no Luddite, enthusing about the possibilities offered by nanotechnology and stressing that computer life offers “wonderful opportunities for collective creativity”. She thinks schools should develop software and systems that help pupils see their screen lives in a much wider context. She has a plan, of course, should Gordon Brown ask. “Neuroscientists, computer experts and educationalists should work closely together, bankrolled by the Government.”
This is quite a long way from “Social networking sites are evil”, but then, that’s not such an interesting headline. As for her central thesis, well, it’s not far off Rita Carter’s argument in Why Reading Matters, and it’s an argument that far better writers than myself have tried to refute, and while I can see a little truth in it, I can’t simply accept the opinion of a single scientist the way the Mail can.