This just stopped being amusing. Even 'king Newsnight is warbling on about it now. But stop right there. Just compare the headlines on those two pages.
The Daily Mail:
Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist
Online risks: from cancer to autism?
Note the note of certainty present in the first and prominently absent from the second. A note of certainty that constitutes a barefaced lie because it imputes content in the statement from a scientist (Prof Susan Greenfield) which simply wasn't there. She could, I imagine, sue them for libel. All she announced were her fears, which we'll deal with in a moment. What the Mail trumpeted was a declaration of actual ongoing harm. There should be a law against that!
Fortunately the Newsnight studio debate (If that link evaporates, here's a youtube backup) was a reasonably balanced affair between Dr Aric Sigman (the source of the Cancer concerns) and Dr Ben Goldacre (author of "Bad Science" and the Grauniad column of the same name.) Newsnight's intro included reference to previous social panics over "New Technology" from the introduction of clocks (which would separate us from "natural time"!), through the Printing Press (which would make us all intellectually lazy!!) and the Telephone (which would make us all antisocial!!!)
And purely by coincidence, I stumbled this only this afternoon:
Anyway, Goldacre quickly demolished not so much the notion, (it is entirely plausible that kids brains are affected by the new media - I'd be 'king amazed if they weren't) but the claim that the result is "damaging". There is simply zero evidence to support that. And, to be fair to Greenfield (which is why she should sue the Mail) she made no such claim. Even the hyperbolic article beneath the deliberately deceptive headline made that clear with the quote from the Baroness:
My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'(emphasis added)
...and, elsewhere, her concern that "repeated exposure could effectively 'rewire' the brain" (again, emphasis added)
These are not unreasonable concerns and nobody should object to some serious research on the issue. Personally, however, the only real concern I share regarding the amount of time spent at the computer (on all business, not just social networking) is that, if you're still in the larval stage (i.e. younger than about 25), and spending more than a couple of hours a day at the keyboard, you are probably depriving yourself of major amounts of physical activity which you need for optimal physical development, including the development of your immune systems, reasonable aerobic fitness, good muscle tone, flexibility etc etc. If you're not doing at least 30 minutes a day of pretty serious exercise, at that age, you're asking for trouble in later life. In this respect I am more sympathetic to Sigman's concerns than Greenfield's.
I could speculate, on the same day that another famous Newspaper warned of imminent internet induced collapse, that the Mail's not so hidden agenda is that anything which drags people away from the web is good for their business. But I have no evidence for that so, unlike the Mail, I won't pretend there is any.
Greenfield, however, is, unfortunately, one of those who "just don't get it". She's been rabbiting on about how the Web is damaging attention spans and people's ability to focus for months now and frankly, I find her comments both ignorant and insulting.
Take, for example, her repeated speculations that Social Networking interactions are preventing participants learning how to form real world relationships and attachments. If she bothered to lurk a sample of what's going on, she would quickly learn that when they're not discussing the perennial favourites of Teenagers for at least the past half century (Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll) the Number Four obsession is relationships in the real world and what they should do about them.
Hence, far from reducing their abilities in this respect, what they are equally likely to be involved in is "peer review" about the best way to handle such development problems; which, almost certainly, means that the average quality of such advice is increasing because the daft stuff is much more quickly identified online - and kicked into touch - than it is offline.
A similar huge unresearched kerfuffle is regularly kicked up (particularly by Webophobes like the Mail) about such phenomena as "Suicide sites" where angst driven teenagers gather together to discuss why they should not go on living and how best to end it all. Occasionally we hear that one of them has topped himself. You'd be forgiven if you formed the impression that this was becoming a major problem. After all, what else would lead to government promises to shut them down? But if you go looking for evidence of the numbers of "online suicides" they're remarkably difficult to find, considering how much of a problem they're supposed to be. The best I could manage was this site talking of 70 deaths linked to suicide sites in 2008 "eclipsing" the 55 from 2005. And that's the GLOBAL estimate.
In contrast, we learn here, that over 1700 teenagers killed themselves in Britain alone between 1997 and 2003 - and this turns out to be good news! Because it actually marks a 28% decline in the Suicide rate over that period, with males experiencing an even more dramatic 35% improvement. Just at the time the explosion of online activity got going. Fancy that.
So, in fact, despite the routine authoritarian hype, online suicide, is - particularly compared to offline suicide - very rare indeed. So rare, in fact, that it makes me wonder how many lives such sites are actually saving. How? I suspect it is a result of simply allowing the sufferers to get together. For the first time in human history, suicidal teenagers can communicate deeply and intimately enough to share their suffering. And I strongly suspect that it will emerge that, while it may push the occasional sufferer over the edge, for the majority this contact alone is enough to lift many of them out of the gloom and back to normality. That's something else we need to research.
But as Goldacre pointed out, there is already considerable serious research on the phenomenon of Social Networking. Danah Boyd has made herself one of the leading researchers in the field and she maintains this portal giving access to much of it.
None I could find supports any significant negative effects and some indicates some positive effects. Clearly it's too early to make lasting judgements and the jury is still out, but just on the question of the effect on real world relationships, Boyd's own research found:
When I ask teenagers why they joined MySpace, the answer is simple: “Cuz that’s where my friends are.” Their explanation of what they do on the site is much more vague: “I don’t know… I just hang out.” Beneath these vague explanations is a clear message: the popularity of MySpace is deeply rooted in how the site supports sociality amongst preexisting friend groups. Teens join MySpace to maintain connections with their friends.(emphasis added) (1)
Before getting back to the Newsnight debate, we can't ignore Greenfield's concerns regarding Autism, which are frankly bizarre and badly misinformed, especially for an academic.
She told peers in the House of Lords it would be worth considering whether the rise in autism - a condition marked by difficulties forming attachments - was linked to the increasing prevalence of screen relationships.Just one wee problem with that wild speculation. The average age of diagnosis of Autism remains below 4 years old. I don't know about you, but I don't see many 4 year-olds (or under) trolling the Social Networks. (although I've had my doubts about one or two)
TV v The Web
Meanwhile back on Newsnight, I was desperately waiting for somebody to make two obvious points. Right at the end of the piece, they got close and I was sure Goldacre would nail Sigman. He let me down. Though, to be fair, Paxman may have cut in too soon to give him the chance of replying.
Sigman made the point (in defence of his own case against Social Networking) that there is mounting evidence of the damage to young kids who watch more than an hour a day of Television, particularly if they do so before the age of 3.
As this study reveals, he's completely correct. It is quite frightening. They are being programmed for passivity and a short attention span, particularly if they watch American commercial TV, which cannot maintain focus on anything for more than 10 minutes. That was the first point I was waiting for.
By contrast - and this is the second point which should have been made but wasn't - comparing the passive behaviour of watching TV with the active involvement required for participation in Social Networking is like comparing watching the Grand Prix with taking part in it! And the consequences of the difference are utterly profound and seem to skate miles over the heads of the whingers like Greenfield, the Mail and last year's over-hyped doom-monger Andrew Keen.
SOCIAL NETWORKING DOESN'T WORK IF YOU'RE PASSIVE.
You're simply not noticed and essentially fail to form or link into a network!
This is the kind of thing I touched on in a recent Stumble about other people who "don't get it". There is no doubt in my mind that Social Networking (and Web 2.0 generally - popular publishing) is dramatically transforming Society forever. And in ways the political class will not like at all.
The Real Fear
All these conservatives, naysayers and authoritarians claim concern about the loss of community, the weakening of real world relationships, reduced attention span etcetera, etcetera. They try to frighten parents with talk of increasing loneliness and isolation amongst the generation of Social Networkers. Well, if you're reading this, and you've got this far, then no-one can accuse you of reduced attention span. And, given that you're one of the victims of this poisonous environment, are your Stumbling/Blogging/Facebooking/Myspacing etc activities leaving you feeling isolated and depressed? If so, I have to wonder why so many millions of us are doing it! Are we all masochists?
What they're really concerned about, even they have the sense not to mention (in public). It's not the loss of community they fear. It's the loss of control. Our online communities are beginning to get organised and, as Obama's election showed, beginning to have an effect in the real world. And it's not a reduced attention span they're really afraid of, it's the focus of our "limited" attention being on things they'd really rather not have exposed to such an intense gaze - like 9-11 and the illegal invasion of Iraq; like the illegal torture, "extraordinary rendition" and other attacks on civilised values and liberty allegedly required in pursuit of the War on Terror; like the thousands of illegal attacks by Police on Citizens; like the activities of Big Pharma or the fraudulent basis of the American dollar or the IRS. We ain't just exposing naked emperors, we're examining the bastards - in public - with a proctoscope.
Evolution at Revolutionary Speed
What is really happening may appear to be rather slow if you're stuck in the middle of it, because "real time" is pedestrian. But in historical terms, we are going through a lightning speed transition. Just consider the fact that half the people reading this probably cannot remember a time when people didn't walk down the street talking into a mobile phone. Many Social Networkers have had an email account since they learned to read - and those few who read this will be surprised that I even consider that worth mentioning. They'll have learned to use a mouse at about the same age I was catching sticklebacks in a jam jar.
Is this dramatically different lifestyle going to produce a dramatically different kind of human brain? I bloody well hope so, 'cos I certainly haven't been too impressed with Version 1.
The key thing is that while ALL computer related activities, including those online, are undeniably far too sedentary - though things like the Wii are beginning to address that issue - the online life is certainly NOT "inactive". Yes, you can sit and watch youtube for hours, but, though it offers a welcome respite from time to time, it's actually rather tame compared to all the other shit you can do online. And a helluva lot of that other stuff requires some activity on your part, even, occasionally, some intelligent thought.
And once you take it to the Social Networking level, it requires even greater levels of engagement. Blogging takes it one step higher. Now you're laying yourself open to the world and his dog to attack you, in public, for your unsolicited views.
Overall, far from isolating people, the Social Networks and blogs are allowing a far larger proportion of humanity to have both low and high level conversations, across a far broader population base than we've ever previously even dreamed about. And out here, it is, at last, obvious how artificial and unnecessary tribal, religious and national boundaries really are - together with the artificial human constructs on which they are based.
No, we're certainly NOT isolated. What We The People are doing is evolving at revolutionary speed. At this crucial stage we are still learning how to participate in intelligent discussion and the decision making process. We are still learning how to moderate - at least verbal - conflict. We are still learning how to take control of - at least - our virtual lives, and, I would argue, we are beginning to see the signs that this is spilling over into management of our real lives.
In particular, there is a huge gap between the intelligence level of Society online and Society offline. Such that many of the comments you'll get away with in the schoolyard, the workplace, or even the dinner party will get short shrift online. Make a claim about a "fact" online, and, if it isn't true, someone will shoot you down pdq. Would that this happened more often in real life - particularly to politicians and other professional liars.
The Genie Won't Climb Back Into The Bottle
This is not, in any way to ignore the blatant frauds, the scams, the spam, the virulent misanthropy or the crass stupidity of many of the bitizens hereabouts. But they do a lot less damage in cyberspace than they do in the real world, and, in the real world, you can't do much to keep the buggers out.
And because the well informed bitizen knows that there is a serious risk of deception, they have much better strategies for testing what they are told. The kind of lies that Politicians routinely get away with in the real world are quite impossible to peddle here. This is one of the reasons Politicians the world over are so keen to try to put this genie back in the bottle.
Hence we see the hopelessly naive and positively Victorian attempts by the Australian government to make access to porn impossible (which is, itself, impossible); and the Chinese firewall designed to suppress dissent and the tools you need to spread it; and the British government's illicit instruction to the ISPs to retain private web browsing data for two years (soon to be adopted Europe-wide); and the illegal American ban on online gambling; and the German government's ban on Holocaust Denial sites (and proposal to follow the Australian porn filtering route); and the bizarre ban by the French on one of the single most important uses of the web - citizen journalism featuring, for example, the filming of violent attacks by citizens on citizens or, increasingly often, by police on citizens. And so on. We won't even talk about what they're up to in the 3rd World or Islamic countries
All around the world, governments, made up of thousands of people who "just don't get it" are trying their hardest to roll the clock back to the days before we had the liberty to speak our own minds on the global stage; make our own alliances without regard to tribal norms or national boundaries; watch or read whatever we want, whenever we want, share it and comment on it with whoever will listen and generally conduct our virtual lives completely beyond the control of governments. They REALLY don't like this game and they will do whatever they can to bring it down.
They Cannot Control What They Don't Understand
They haven't got a hope. If you really want to dismantle or control something as colossally complex as the Web, you MUST have a very deep understanding of what you are attacking. And ALL the people who have that level of understanding, the ones who really DO get it, have no intention of giving it up. And even at the shallow end, it's a beautifully subversive technology. As soon as you do get it, at all, you become "one of us".
The online communities are, of course, fully aware that we are under attack from "yesterday's men". We know how much bullshit they spout in the real world and how they try to emulate it in this one. But if you want a couple of examples of how their approach fails miserably in cyberspace, take a look at the War on Drugs and see how little traffic their message gets against ours. Or compare the number of Atheist sites to Christian ones - and then compare that to our populations in the real world.
How many atheists do you suppose have been converted to Christianity in the past few years? I can name the only one I know of: Anthony Flew. In contrast, I've given up counting how many wavering Christians have thanked me personally for this story which, they tell me, has steered them away from "the path of Christian righteousness". And I don't get anything like the traffic of the prominent Atheist sites.
We Won't Get Fooled Again
One of the consequences of all this is that online communities are developing a much deeper sense of integrity and honesty. Yes, of course, we can still find a million flame wars, megatonnes of bullshit, groundless conspiracy theories and all kinds of crap. But unlike the entirety of human history prior to this time, any well motivated individual can, generally without expense and without requesting permission or assistance from any other, step out onto the web and unravel "The Truth" in much greater detail and quantities than we've ever previously been exposed to - even if we were yesterday's World Leaders.
Does anyone think that the present corrupt political systems will survive this growing clarity?
Does anyone really believe that, We The People, having taught ourselves, by playing with the frivolous, how to conduct the serious, will ever again be stupid enough to trust the pompous incompetent charlatans who have led us into the mess the world is in today?
Why, having taught ourselves what's really been going on behind the scenes throughout most of human history and having taught ourselves that - when it matters - it is actually possible to prevent people lying to us, why would we ever again permit the politicians or the police or the bankers etc to get away with their organised crime?
The political class has had its day. We The People are about to take control; perhaps not this year or this decade but in the not too distant future. It's no longer a question of If, but When.
If you are one of "them", (as if) don't worry, I'm sure we'll find you a nice little home...
(1 boyd, danah. (2007) “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)