I’m getting tired of new behaviors that some people don’t like being classified as “harming children’s brains”. Social networking is the latest victim (see the Guardian).
Don’t like the what social networking seems to do to people? It’s an easy path to prove it harms kids brains: the brain modifies itself based on anything you regularly do, an argument can be made that a world of social networkers is suboptimal, and some social networkers (quite a lot) are kids. Voila! Social networking “harms children’s brains”. It’s fun and easy! I’ll leave video games as an exercise for the reader (or see “Can computer games harm children’s brains?” for the answer).
I’ll tell you what harms your brain: neurodegenerative lesions (like those from dementia), repeated blows to the head (like from boxing), brain tumors. Those unequivocally harm your brain. The brain is non-subjectively worse off than if those hadn’t occurred.
But I take exception to more subjective assessments of “harm”. Who gets to determine what is “changing” the brain versus “harming” the brain? Maybe reading War and Peace in one sitting won’t be a useful skill for the rest of the 21st century. Maybe sacrificing face-to-face social skills for technological ones will pay off in the long run for humanity. I don’t know. But any opinion I have is just that – an opinion; not undeniable, scientific proof of harm.
One can certainly argue social networking as a regular habit will alter a person’s brain, just as playing chess does. But how does proof of change become proof of harm? It seems slight of hand is involved. According to Baroness Susan Greenfield in The Guardian:
experiences on social networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity" …
"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations. We know that the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to the outside world."
Lady Greenfield in other articles does acknowledge the plasticity of the brain – that it’s not just social networking but almost everything, good or bad, that alters the brain. Here she states:
"every single moment, leaves its mark almost literally on your brain". Importantly, the impact of external stimuli on the brain is physical, such that the brain’s architecture undergoes observable changes according to the stimuli it receives.
But of course that nuance gets lost when the press is looking for a story and a headline involving “harms children’s brains” gets a lot more attention than one saying “social networking, like any other activity, invokes the brain’s ability to change itself, the result of which may be judged good or bad depending on your personal beliefs”. Adding words like “infantilised” certainly injects value judgment though. She’s throwing raw meat out to the press. She’s not cooking it and serving it up, but the press is more than happy to oblige, adding some spices along the way.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the value of social networking. I agree with Dr Chris Davie who writes:
we see a lot of evidence to suggest that, far from infantilising young people, the computer and the internet together provide a powerful means by which young people can begin to take control of their lives in ways which adults should be very cautious about condemning so readily.
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