Facebook is ‘infantilising’ the human mind

Category: Media & Technology
Published on Feb 24, 2009

Here’s one for my co-author Don and the Net Generation team to chew on or chew up. Baronness Susan Greenfield, a professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, has warned that the experience of growing up immersed in hyper-stimulating digital technologies will result in human minds characterized by “short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.”

The remarks were made to the House of Lords and written up by the Guardian as Greenfield criticized regulators for not taking into account the broad cultural and psychological effects of social networking.  

Like others in the field, Greenfield asserts that exposure to digital technologies impacts brain development. “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, ” she said. 

But Greenfield draws decidedly less optimistic conclusions than those in Grown Up Digital

“If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.

“It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Excessive exposure to video games is also fostering a culture of instant gratification, says Greenfield:

“[with] a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences.  .  . The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”

Finally, Greenfield worries that social networking sites may erode our sense of identity and even our ability to communicate through face-to-face conversation: 

“real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.”

Greenfield seems eminently distinguished in her field and her warnings remind us that the psychological impacts of the digital revolution on children require more study. But Greenfield is also the author of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century technology is changing the way we think and feel (Penguin 2003), a dystopian novel about how everything we take for granted about human nature – imagination, individuality, memory, love, free will – could soon become lost forever as genetic modification, nanotechnology and cybernetics conspire to leave us in a ‘passive, sensory-laden state’.  Makes me think that Greenfield has over-reached in her analysis of how digital technologies will influence society, culture and human nature.

Unfortunately, Greenfield’s dystopian pronouncements are likely to fall upon welcoming ears in the House Of Lords where ignorance about social networking technologies and the emerging youth culture could result in unwelcome new regulations.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment