Susan Greenfield and the rise of the Facebook zombies | Pete Etchells and Chris Chambers | Science | guardian.co.uk.
Susan Greenfield and the rise of the Facebook zombies
Which is more dangerous, technology changing our brains or scientists mutating into priests?
Susan Greenfield argues that the new ‘Facebook phone’ will lead to a dangerous loss of privacy that will impact on brain function. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
It sounds terrifying. Baroness Susan Greenfield has proclaimed that “Facebook Home could change our brains”. Cue visions from Stephen King’s horror novel Cell, in which anyone using a phone instantaneously morphs into a ravenous zombie.
For now the streets are free from undead hordes, but that rumbling sound you hear is real. It’s the collective groan of the neurosciencecommunity whenever the Baroness makes headlines. Those of us who study neuroscience and psychology regard Greenfield’s views on modern technology as stemming more from ideology than evidence. With every article or talk, Greenfield deepens her quasi-religious vision of a lost golden age before computers devoured our humanity.
In Saturday’s Telegraph, she argues that the new “Facebook phone” will lead to a dangerous loss of privacy that will impact on brain function:
Already we are seeing a generation of 20-somethings still living at home, wearing ‘onesies’ (all in one crawler suits usually reserved for very small infants), perhaps playing mythical or sci-fi games with simplified values of all-good or all-evil, and/or craving the constant attention of others through social networking sites … If we’re going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction, unpractised as it is, becomes uncomfortable, then such an aversion to real life, three-dimensional communication combined with a more collective identity, may be changing the very nature of personal relationships themselves. The speed required for reaction and the reduced time for reflection might mean that those reactions and evaluations themselves are becoming increasingly superficial.
Is there any substance to Greenfield’s latest claim? The short answer is no, although it would be wrong to reduce the argument to simple black-and-white. A recent study by Alison Parkes and her colleagues looked at how watching TV and playing video games affects childhood development. It’s the latest study assessing a concept called “screen time” – basically, the amount of time spent per day using screen-based technology (TV, computers, smartphones, etc.). It’s an enticing concept because it’s so simple. If you can show that the sheer amount of time spent using something like Facebook has an effect on behavioural development, then it’s easy to come up with guidelines on curbing usage that will have an apparent impact on children’s lives.
But, as with most things in life, the story isn’t so simple. Parkes asked whether technology use at age five was associated with detrimental effects on behaviour at age seven – for example, hyperactivity or aggression. The results were nuanced. After accounting for other factors that could cause negative outcomes, such as parental mental health and socioeconomic status, the effects of screen time were muted. The only remaining association was between TV viewing and conduct disorder – five year olds who watched more than three hours of TV per day were slightly more likely to develop more aggressive behaviour by the age of seven.
It’s great that we’re starting to see data from UK samples on these issues, but we must be wary of placing too much significance on overly simple concepts such as “screen time”. One obvious question is what sort of television those five year olds were watching for so long every day?
Even more frustrating is the straw man description of video games. Increasingly, they are being used as important learning and rehabilitation tools. In 2003, for instance, researchers at the University of Washington developed a game called SnowWorld, aimed at severe burns patients. Taking the form of the oft-maligned first person shooter game, SnowWorld was designed to distract patients from the pain while their burns were being dressed. Recent studies have shown that because their attention was focused away from their injuries, patients reported feeling less pain.
Another type of shooter game, re-Mission, was developed in 2006 for teenage cancer patients. Harking back to the 1980s movie Inner Space, players adopt the role of a miniaturised hero travelling through the body, attacking cancerous cells and administering antibiotics. Through playing the game, patients learn about the importance of maintaining chemotherapy and drug treatments. Studies looking at the effectiveness of the game have shown that patients who use it end up knowing more about cancer, and are more likely to stick to their treatment regimes.
The bottom line is that we mustn’t be afraid of “brain change”.Neuroplasticity is an intrinsic property of the brain – without it we wouldn’t be able to learn anything new or recover from brain injury. Sometimes, though, changes to the brain might be harmful. This raises questions about how certain technologies might influence behaviour and development. But we must consider such effects within the broader context of many complex factors that shape development. As we advance into the 21st century, it is just as crucial to focus on the positive effects of computer technology as the potential negatives.
Throughout this process of discovery it is crucial that we stay close to our best friend: the data. Greenfield’s approach is devoid of data, and damaging to public understanding. It’s bad enough when ideology trumps evidence, but it’s particularly egregious when the perpetrator is a leading scientist. The moment any of our ilk uses their social authority to support flawed and biased arguments, they surrender the title of “scientist” in favour of “priest”.
It is on this point that we see a genuine threat. The real dystopia won’t be a meltdown of human society caused by computer technology. It will be the genuine risk of wolves in scientists’ clothing ushering pseudoscience past our rational guard. You’ll know when this day comes because us neuroscientists will hang up our spurs and answer our true calling: donning onesies and bringing terror to the streets.