Is the internet dangerous? Taking a closer look at Baroness Greenfield’s concerns

by Andrew Maynard on August 15, 2011

Do the internet, social media and gaming represent a potential threat to society as significant as climate change?  UK scientist Susan Greenfield certainly thinks so, and has been on the British media circuit in recent days talking about her concerns and leaving behind her a wake of controversy.

Watching the story unfold, I hesitated to get involved – neuroscience is not an area where I have much expertise.  But I do have a professional interest in evidence-informed and socially responsive decision-making, and so as yet another piece by Baroness Greenfield was published today – this one a video statement posted by The Guardian – I thought it worth taking a closer look at her views.

By way of background, Susan Greenfield is a respected Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University, is a former Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and is a member of the UK House of Lords (her formal title is Baroness Greenfield).  She is also a widely recognized science-communicator in the UK, with a TV series under her belt, a season of Royal Institution lectures, and a handful of popular science books to her name.  In addition to all this, she launched a computer-based “exercise program for the brain” in 2007 called MindFit.

Baroness Greenfield has been raising concerns over the internet and society for some years now.  These are concerns that have resonated with parents and occasionally infuriated fellow scientists.  But over the past couple of weeks they have received renewed attention in the media, especially comments tentatively associating internet use with autism.  In an article in the New Scientist she seemed to conflate the growing incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) with increasing internet use – a perspective that prompted developmental neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop to write Greenfield an open letter questioning her statements.

Yet rather than back away from this inference, Greenfield’s position seemed to be re-enforced in an interview in The Guardian, where she stated

“I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.”

- a quote that started a trend of identifying “Greenfieldisms” on the net -  observations of concurrent trends that are coincidental, but have little else in common..

Approaching Baroness Greenfield’s video on The Guardian’s website today, I tried to put this history to one side. As a parent, one tends to be hypersensitive to things that may have an adverse effect on your offspring – especially those factors that, as a responsible parent, you feel you have some control over.  And like many other parents, I’ve worried at times about how the hours spent in front of the games console or on FaceBook and YouTube might impact my two teenagers.  So I was willing to give her a fair hearing.

At the same time, like other risk professionals, I realize that there is often a gaping chasm between actual risks and our intuitive perceptions, and that uninformed actions on perceived risks can turn out to be more harmful than beneficial in some cases. So I was interested to see how Baroness Greenfield’s statements stood up to scrutiny.

Martin Robbins was good enough to transcribe Baroness Greenfield’s video (see here), giving me the chance to examine it statement by statement.

She introduces the video by saying:

What I’ve been doing over the last few months is attempting to convince people that we’re facing an issue that’s as important and unprecedented as climate change. And I call it ‘mind change’ because I think there’s certain parallels.

With mind change the issue is how the new technologies, the new environment of two dimensions, might be impacting on the human mind, and changing the way especially young generations may be thinking or feeling

Laying aside the comparison with climate change – which veers a little close to comparing apples with oranges for my comfort – Greenfield appears to ask a valid question: How are modern communication technologies – which we as a species have not previously experienced – affecting us?

As I’ve said, I’ve worried on and off for years about how internet use might affect and possibly impede the development of my two children, so this to me is an intuitively valid question – it’s the sort of thing parents are programmed to worry about.  But is this a question that should be specifically aimed at brain development and cognitive/emotional function, or is it a much broader question concerning the coupling between human-driven technology development, individuals and society?  I suspect that the broader question is the more important one, and that because of the intertwined nature of technology and society, just focusing on one aspect could be dangerously narrow-sighted.

Reading these opening statements, I wonder how people and society have dealt with previous technology advancements, and in particular where the similarities might lie between the current surge in communications and information technologies and historic advances such as language development; writing;  printing; movies; and television.  I also wonder what in particular distinguishes the internet and how it is being used from other technologies that have had high social impact.  These are important questions that need to be addressed if we are to make sense of the societal opportunities and challenges presented by the internet.  Are they addressed here? Read on.

Baroness Greenfield goes on to challenge some of her detractors, and to establish that she is not anti-technology:

I’m often seen as a kind of techno-ludditee, so I’d like to say from the outset that there are certain beneficial issues, for example you only have to look at MIT in the States who put all their courses on the web for anyone to access and download (although they can’t register for a degree). There’s some interesting evidence that perhaps a higher IQ which has been witnessed over the last decade or so might be linked to a facility with computer games because one is rehearsing the same type of skills. Visual motor skills may be improved again by rehearsal of interaction with the screen but my concern are those issues that are being overlooked or conflated possibly in a more general way.

This to me appears to be a very narrow perspective on the personal and social utility of the internet.  Of course, the internet can and is being used to make information and training more accessible.  But it seems misguided to characterize an emerging platform for storing, exchanging and adding value to information, and for facilitating multi-level engagement between individuals and groups, as just an education tool.  Likewise, focusing on how some computer games may improve abilities through rehearsing certain skills seems to fall into the trap of evaluating them against a inappropriate metric.  Anyone who is familiar with the range of digital activities people participate in these days – from first person shooters to mental puzzles to interactive social games –   will wonder where Baroness Greenfield’s understanding of gaming comes from.

Of course, her point is that these two benefits do not necessarily do justice the complexity of the impacts that may also be resulting from widespread internet use.  But by choosing two supposed benefits that are not representative of how people are using and being impacted by the internet these days, she is biasing the discussion toward preconceived ideas.

Greenfield next looks more closely at learning:

For example learning, let’s think about learning. Some people say learning is going to be improved with access to the screen because indubitably you can access facts. But information and accessing facts is not really knowledge, it’s not understanding, and I fear that sometimes there may be such an enthusiasm for being bombarded with facts, that people think that automatically, along with the facts, and the ability that we can respond to those facts quickly if we wish, comes understanding, and I think it’s quite the opposite.

My own view is that understanding involves hooking up one fact with another, facts on their own are pretty boring, but when they are compared one with another, that’s when you start to develop ideas and I fear that this enthusiasm for learning and information may be missing out the quintessential ingredient of understanding.

Here I agree with Baroness Greenfield – learning is not about facts as much as what you do with them.  But ask any teacher and they would probably say the same.  In other words, this is important, but it is not new.  And it is only relevant to the internet if indeed this new medium is eroding society’s ability to use facts effectively, and is doing so in a more damaging way than any preceding technology.

This is actually a significant issue. But is a complex one that is too easily oversimplified.  Privately I have many colleagues who decry how technology and access to information is leading to a decline in critical thinking.  But while I have some sympathies here, it’s a tune I have been listening to since the 1980′s (i.e. since I was old enough to listen to it!), and is one that has accompanied every technology innovation I am old enough to have experienced, from the electronic calculator onward.

I suspect (but don’t have solid evidence to hand) that society tends to be self-correcting as new technologies are developed, and that over time many detrimental trends are minimized and beneficial trends re-enforced.  This would certainly seem to be the lesson from the past 10,000 years, and would explain why the printing press and personal calculators haven’t led to the collapse of society.

Of course, it is always possible that a new technology will be sufficiently disruptive that it cannot be successfully assimilated – which is why I spend so much time studying the potential impacts of emerging technologies, and how to handle them.  But here, sophisticated rather than simplistic analysis is essential.

Then there’s gaming:

Another issue I’m worried about is gaming. I think it’s a very dangerous lesson to learn that actions don’t have consequences, that someone can be undead. In real life this is not the case, you may be sorry for what you’ve done, you may be able to change your ways, you may be able to do things that can compensate for what has happened, but you can’t rub it out of the space-time continuum, you can’t pretend its not there. When you play a game someone can be undead again and I fear that this may be a rather dangerous lesson to learn. And if you’re doing such activities all the time, i.e. doing things that don’t have consequences, I would argue they don’t have meaning, and if you’re doing something that doesn’t have meaning, what would that say about you?

As a parent, gaming worries me.  So does violence in movies.  So do what I consider to be questionable attitudes and perspectives propagated in literature.  But these are largely instinctive reactions, along the lines of “violence on TV is damaging, because I believe it must be”. They are not reactions I am necessarily proud of.

This again is a complex area where it is easy to fall into the trap of over-simplification.  But three things strike me from Baroness Greenfield’s comments:

1.  People have always tried to make sense of the world through story telling, fictitious scenarios and mental models.  What distinguishes games as described by Greenfield from myths and fables, verbal story telling, children’s role playing, novels, plays and movies?  There may be important distinctions, but without a clear basis for identifying these distinctions, these comments are indistinguishable from fears over the damaging influence of fiction that extend through the ages.

2.  People – including children and teens – are pretty sophisticated when it comes to distinguishing between fiction and reality.  I admit I worry still about the moral outlook that some games potentially instill in my teens.  But I have similar worries about many other influences.  When I was a kid, shooting each other with toy guns, or even sticks or our fingers, was all the rage.  Morally questionable?  Probably.  But did we all grow up thinking that there there are no consequences to our actions?  I don’t think so.  The relationship between video/gaming environments and personal/social interactions is an area of active research.  But to my knowledge those relationships are complex, and evidence for clear cause and effect when it comes to antisocial behavior is far from obvious.

3. Reading this, I have to ask whether Baroness Greenfield has the first idea what contemporary video gaming is like.  My two teens indulge in everything from complex puzzles to social simulation games to role playing to sports games to good old fashion shoot’em’ups.  And in many cases, these are social games.  My son will talk with friends in real time as he plays on his XBox.  He has friends over for tournaments, or arranges on-line competitions.  Gaming is part of his social community. Both my teens have rich social interactions around the on-line games they play.  Far from being socially isolating, they are socially enriching.

It’s easy to have an instinctive response to gaming.  But if you respond to something without understanding, what would that say about you?

Baroness Greenfield goes on to address concerns that there is limited evidence to support her views:

Inevitably I have my protractors [sic], and one of the most common complaints is that there is no evidence for what I’m saying and I think I’ve got several ways really of addressing that.

First of course is absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, as witness smoking in the fifties, that was the mantra of the tobacco companies that there wasn’t any evidence. So that’s the first issue.

Second, as a neuroscientist. I think there is evidence certainly that the brain will adapt, and therefore its not an unreasonable assumption that it will adapt in a way that is equipped to survive almost as if its a computer itself in the two-dimensional world where fast responses are mandated, and response to simulation rather than, in a thought… that’s…

Third there is actually evidence accumulating there’s Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows’ there’s Richard Watson’s ‘Future Minds’ there’s Sherry Turtle’s ‘Learn Together’ there’s a brilliant review by Daphne Bavelier in the very high impact journal Neuron from last year, where she suggested that there was a tendency now for increase in distraction, violence and addiction, related to screen technologies.

Taking these in turn:

Greenfield is right when she says “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”. But that statement is no justification for raising doubts without plausible justification, or making associations without at least some supporting evidence.  This is particularly important where a asking a question can itself can influence behavior, irrespective of supporting evidence.  Simply suggesting that ASD might be associated with the internet for instance places pressure on parents to respond to these doubts as they try and do the best for their kids.  But what if that leads to unwarranted stress, or inappropriate and unjustified action?

That the brain adapts to external stimuli is well known.  But adapting “as if its a computer itself in the two-dimensional world where fast responses are mandated…” – I’m not sure where to begin with this idea.  Is Greenfield implying that playing computer games might lead to players adapting to the two dimensional virtual environment, and de-adapting from the three dimensional world we inhabit?  This would be worrying were it true.  But surely such a strong statement – especially from a neuroscientist – demands supporting evidence.  Otherwise why not go the whole hog and claim driving simulators are a significant cause of road accidents; action games a significant cause of homicides, and martial arts games a major cause of people forgetting about gravity (I’m to sure where this leaves people who play Angry Birds)? The reality is that we seem to adapt remarkably well to assimilating these 2D simulations into our 3D world, rather than starting to live our lives under 2D assumptions.

Regarding the evidence alluded to by Greenfield, here’s an excerpt from the conclusions of the “brilliant review by Daphne Bavelier” (the full paper can be accessed here):

The past half-century has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of technology available to and used by children— a fact that has clearly shaped the way children learn, develop, and behave. Given the multifaceted nature of technology, it is perhaps unsurprising that the story of its impact on child devel- opment is extremely complex and multisided. Some forms of technology have no effect on the form of behavior they were designed to transform, while others have effects that reach far beyond their intended outcomes. All of this is indicative of a field that is still emerging. What we do know is that, in technology, we have a set of tools that has the capability to drastically modify human behavior. What remains, which is not trivial, is to deter- mine how to purposefully direct this capability to produce desired outcomes.

The evidence it seems (from here and elsewhere) points to a complex relationship between technology and behavior – and one that experts in the field feel is poorly understood, and needs more study.  But not one that is necessarily bad.

Baroness Greenfield concludes this section of the video with:

Now of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer and one can go through all the literature and find fault with some of the studies and show their short-comings, of course, but we must do this, we must have the debate.

There is nothing wrong with debate.  But I don’t see an evidence-grounded debate here.  Just instinct-driven opinion.  If a debate is to be conducted, there are probably better ways of going about making sure it is focused on plausible, significant and justified concerns.

Baroness Greenfield finishes up the video with:

I think the other issue which we mustn’t ignore is trends. I know that’s not evidence but I think trends are telling us something and one trend is there’s a tripling of prescriptions for drugs for attention deficit disorder. Now this could mean that drugs are being prescribed more liberally, it could mean that the condition is being medicalized and recognized, or it might just mean that perhaps we are putting very small children in a scenario that mandates a short attentions span so that when they get to school they will fidget and therefore perhaps in certain cases they may be ‘diagnosed’ as having ADHD .

The same issue can also apply possible to the increase in diagnosis of autism and this is a very controversial issue and I’d like to say that I want to stress there’s an increase in diagnosis of autism and no-one seems to know why. I would like those who purport that it is entirely genetic to show or have evidence that it is due to simply that there’s increased numbers of diagnoses. But my own view is it’s not so much that autism is a single condition but more that if you have someone who spends their life not looking people in the eye, not learning how to hug someone, who puts a premium on actions speaking louder than words, that might encourage – and I do stress might – autistic-like behaviour.

Again, Baroness Greenfield is correct – we should not ignore trends.  But there are well established methodologies of examining trends and correlating between trends and activities – methodologies designed to remove bias and human perception from the process, and to ensure that inferences drawn are evidence-based.  These methodologies are tremendously important, as in their absence dangerous inferences can be drawn – inferences that lead to morally questionable action on the basis of assumption and prejudice.

I wonder whether Susan Greenfield has forgotten this lesson.

Finally, I cannot let Baroness Greenfield’s last statement on autism go unaddressed.

There is an implicit assumption here that internet use leads to reduced interpersonal skills, compromised personal interactions and inhibited interpersonal communication.  From watching my two teenagers and their use of the internet and social media, all I can say is what utter bunkum!  Of course, a study group of two is hardly statistically significant.  But without question, both of my teenagers lead healthy and rich social lives because of how they use the internet, not despite it!

Then there is the suggestion that the way people use the internet may led to autistic behavior.  Greenfield stops short of saying that internet use could cause autism – but the inference is certainly there.  Given the complete lack of evidence for such a link, and the challenges that people with diagnosed ASD and their families face, this seems to be verging on the irresponsible.

At the end of the day, the relationship between a technology platform such as the internet and society is complex, and one that cannot be understood through instinctive responses.  To make sense of this complex relationship, an approach is needed that is based on evidence and expert understanding, is holistic in that is accounts for many intertwined factors, and is responsive to the historic and social context within which it is situated.  Sadly, rather than facilitate this, Baroness Greenfield seems content to remain within the confines of her very limited perceptions.

Baroness Greenfield’s video in The Guardian can be viewed here.

Martin Robbins’ transcript can be accessed here.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dorothy Bishop August 16, 2011 at 12:47 am

There are two problems with Greenfield’s recent claims, a specific one and a general one.
The specific problem concerns her repeatedly mentioning autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in connection with her concerns about dangers of internet use. For instance, in her New Scientist interview, when asked for evidence that digital technology is having an influence on the brain, she said “There is an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders”. This is problematic because, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s draft Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5) “Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder and must be present from infancy or early childhood, but may not be detected until later because of minimal social demands and support from parents or caregivers in early years.” There would seem to be three possible explanations for Greenfield continuing to imply a causal link with digital technology: (a) she thinks time can run backwards, so a cause can follow its effect; (b) she is postulating some kind of Larmarckian process whereby parental intenet use is altering the brains of their offspring; (c) she doesn’t know what ASD is.
It would be interesting to know if she has ever seen a child with ASD, been to a conference about ASD, read up on diagnostic criteria for ASD, or bothered to pick up the phone to talk to an autism expert. She certainly has not published her theories about ASD causation in any peer-reviewed outlet, preferring the Daily Mail as her main outlet.
The more general issue I have is that Greenfield is always billed in the media as a ‘top scientist’. You described her as a ‘respected professor’. This might have been true 15 years ago, but she has long stopped doing any serious research and her public pronouncements of half-baked ideas, coupled her imperviousness to criticism, have meant she has lost the respect of the scientific community. It’s not just me: look at the comments made about her by those neuroscientists who use Twitter. She has been referred to there as the Sarah Palin of neuroscience. My critique of her led to an outpouring of positive feedback from scientists who said it was high time we stopped this pretence that she is worth listening to. I had just *one* critical email from a long-term Greenfield supporter.
It is important for readers to realise that Greenfield has not published any of the ideas that you discuss above in peer reviewed literature. Peer review has been much criticised as an imperfect process, but if nothing else, the recent Greenfield media blitz emphasises how vital peer review is to ensure that one’s ideas are scholarly, balanced and plausible.

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Andrew Maynard August 16, 2011 at 3:09 am

Thanks Dorothy.

I vacillated over referring to Susan Greenfield as a “respected professor” given her reputation, but decided to use the description in the light of her previous work in her field. However, just focusing on the content of the video didn’t provide an opportunity to explore the important issue which you raise of assumed authority. Clearly, Susan Greenfield is being taken as an authoritative voice in areas outside her expertise, and she is actively using her position and background to add weight and influence to this voice.

As a scientist myself, I long ago learned that academic recognition often means little when it comes to intelligent comment – something I’m constantly reminding myself of. But it’s an inescapable reality that academic recognition lends weight and authority to a person’s statements, and confers a significant level of trust. I don’t think that this means academic should confine themselves to their own specialties when speaking – this is problematic on many levels. But I do feel strongly that this trust comes with great responsibility and an obligation of humility – being honest about the limits of one’s understanding, able to admit when one is wrong, and deferring to people who know what they are talking about. Susan Greenfield seems to be misusing this trust.

On ASD, I limited my comments to issues I am more familiar with- many thanks for clarifying some of the specific issues here.

I should also add that the format of the critique didn’t allow a number of other issues to be explored, which should be. One is the need to address implicit assumptions of trans generational effects on the brain. You hint at this in your comments on ASD, although in the public sphere Greenfield leaves an impression that exposure to digital media now could affect future generations. I am not aware of any research that supports this. Yet when talking about societal impacts of technologies, it is vital to distinguish between within-generation and trans-generational impacts, as the implications are profoundly different.

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Hilary Sutcliffe August 16, 2011 at 2:15 am

Excellent post Andrew I had a look myself as I wanted to be sure she wasn’t being vilified unnecessarily as people (OK women!) with unpopular, though not incorrect views often are. I don’t have your critical faculties, but it all seemed rather lightweight and circumstantial so I went back to happily chuckling over the Greenfieldisms.

However, I do want to know more about the impact of computers on our brains and on our social life. I don’t think the way teenagers use computers is necessarily the same as 8 year olds who I see getting very plugged in and uncommunicative. But my boy has a pal who reads all the time to the point where he doesn’t communicate at all with anyone and uses it as a barrier to communicating. So is it that those who are inclined that way will take whatever medium is in fashion and get engrossed to the point of excluding the outside world?

BTW, also I’ve always wanted to know are kids passing their driving tests earlier because of 8 years extra driving practice, and if so does that mean they are safer on the road, or less safe or no different! Love to know that.

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Andrew Maynard August 16, 2011 at 3:11 am

Thanks Hilary.

I think asking how computers and the internet are affecting society, from the individual level upward, is an extremely important question. But there are more appropriate and less appropriate ways of going about this, as you might suspect!

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Noodlemaz August 16, 2011 at 5:43 am

Thank you, Andrew, for a calm and analytical response. Particularly from a parent who has witnessed the benefits of technologies that the generation growing up and understanding them (generally better than their parents) is often trying to defend, somewhat futilely, themselves!

As you say, fear is a natural response, but my major concern is that Greenfield is simply stoking these fires and giving parents more reasons to worry about things they don’t necessarily need to, probably leading to negative outcomes for their kids.

It really interests me that one thing to come out of this is the whole ‘perhaps the internet was created by aspies for aspies’ (a CiF commenter wrote that yesterday, I forget who). So few seem to consider this. And pointing the finger saying ‘onoes it’s going to make you into one of them!’ just seems a bit like knee-jerk disablism, actually.

M

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T R August 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I was looking for the Baroness’s comments on the internet and this website came up. There are several inaccuracies. “People have always tried to make sense of the world through story telling, fictitious scenarios and mental models. What distinguishes games as described by Greenfield from myths and fables, verbal story telling, children’s role playing, novels, plays and movies? ” The clear difference is that gaming involves a much more immersive experience which I thought was self evident. Reading books requires one to imaging a scene, which will be different from person to person, and interpret the text, whereas computer games just feed a steady diet of prescripted action and images as dictated by the programmers and are played for hours at a time. This is fed into the developing brains of young people, whose limbic cortex and frontal lobes are still developing. Who is to say this is not going to have some sort of effect? A quick internet search produced hundreds of studies linking increasing aggression. addiction and other patohlogy with internet use, specifically gaming. This is not to say that all young people will be affected, but clearly there is a subset who will be.

2. “People – including children and teens – are pretty sophisticated when it comes to distinguishing between fiction and reality.” Where on earth do you find evidence for this statement? My highly intelligent and gifted six 1/2 year old still believes in fairies . Children cannot tell the different between reality and fantasy. I have seen my 6 year old totally lose her creativity this year through an increased diet of internet (supervised), computer games and television. That is why I am turning off the TV, stopping access to my iphone and limiting internet use severely.

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Is the internet dangerous? Taking a closer look at Baroness Greenfield’s concerns — Risk Science Blog

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