Mind bending

Observations on networking

Observing my 15-year-old cousin talk to her friends is like watching Formula One, or an episode of 24. It happens at breakneck speed, the plotlines overlap, you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. It’s not talking as such: it’s written, typed in fact, at high speed. About six simultaneous dialogues are taking place – mostly on Facebook. The words stream out of her fingers faster than I knew it was possible to type.

Is it hurting her? I don’t think so. But there’s a growing fear that social networking may be damaging young, developing brains. Back in February, Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and a research scientist at Oxford University, warned the House of Lords that, as a result of social networking sites, the “mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”. The Daily Mail reported her comments under the hysterical headline: “Social websites harm children’s brains.”

Greenfield now says she was misinterpreted. “I’m not saying these things are intrinsically bad, but they can be abused and that’s a different thing.” Her main argument point is our brains are easily moulded, and she points to disconcerting, possibly related trends – the increase in Ritalin prescriptions for ADD and the rise in autism diagnoses. She worries about the teenagers who spend many of their waking hours communicating online, not in person. Some evidence suggests a link between computer literacy and a higher IQ – but, she asks, what about empathy and emotional intelligence?

The backlash against Greenfield has been spearheaded by Dr Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist. “It seems extremely speculative to me,” he says. “I think it’s wrong for someone to dress up their own personal speculations or opinions or prejudices as if they were somehow scientifically meaningful.”

Greenfield admits the lack of evidence so far, and in response has submitted a funding application to research the effect of excessive computer use. She wants to examine the pre-frontal cortex, as it’s already been proven that this part of the brain is underactive in obese people, schizophrenics and gamblers – people, says Greenfield, who struggle to see the consequences of their actions even if they’re clearly damaging. She believes people who spend too much time on computers will show a similar effect.

But Greenfield has never used a social networking site. Goldacre, on the other hand, has Twitter running constantly in the background. But it doesn’t stop him from engaging with friends in a real way, he says. He doubts that the uproar about computer use is different from that over television, radio or video games in their time.

My cousin, meanwhile, is on the verge of social domination. I watch in awe at her speed and agility, the consummate skill with which she switches between sites, friends, writing styles. She has a total lack of awkwardness in her online interactions, and writes deftly, affectionately, wittily. It’s an exhausting spectator sport, the constant stream of multiple voices and questions, photos and comments – the evolving, growing cloud of people, linked by these virtual worlds.