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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.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.