I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education yesterday to discuss “What is the potential impact of technology, such as computer gaming, on the brain?” alongside Baronness Susan Greenfield and we were pleased to be able to present to a packed committee room.
I’ve never met Greenfield before, who was a big influence on me when I decided to become a neuropsychologist, and it was a genuine pleasure to meet her in person.
We started off the talks and it turns out we agree on quite a lot. Greenfield doesn’t want to ban computer games or internet applications but feels parents should be more involved in their kids’ media use to guide them to use it safely and sensibly. She also feels that most kids use technology well and get benefits from it but is concerned about the few that might “fall through the cracks”, or as I would describe them, the few who are a high risk group for unhealthy use.
It seems we agree on the implications, and it was clear the Greenfield is motivated by a genuine concern for young people.
Her talk was sincere, very well delivered but unfortunately her argument was poorly lacking in terms of its scientific content, and I’m afraid to say, wouldn’t pass muster as an undergraduate thesis. This was not least because she discussed not a single study on the effect of games or the internet.
I started my talk by searching PubMed, the database of medical research, to show that there are more than 1,500 published articles in the medical literature that directly discuss computer games.
Many of these studies investigate the concerns she has about whether games might be affecting attention spans or whether online communication could be harming the social life of young people, but she seems unwilling to consider any of them. For someone who is leading the public debate on this issue I find this, at best, baffling.
Greenfield’s justification is entirely based on the idea that young brains are sensitive to their environment, which shapes their development, and so any risks from screen technology might cause significant and unwanted neurological changes. This is, of course, plausible but cannot be evaluated in isolation from the studies that have directly tested the idea.
While I agree with the justification, I’m afraid I found her model of how this might occur also lacking. Not least as it had unspecified and too-broad-to-be-plausible aspects such as dopamine release, caused by gaming, leading to a reduction in frontal lobe activity.
If you want to see my talk, I’ve put the slides from my talk online as a PowerPoint file and apparently, both sets of slides will appear on the website of the Institute for the Future of the Mind shortly, possibly with video as the talks were filmed.
During the talk I made it clear that ignoring the evidence on this issue does a disservice to young people and discussed some of the key findings from the last few decades of research in this area – not least that action video games have been shown to improve cognitive function but that we should be concerned about content and age appropriateness (e.g. violence) and displacement of other activities (such as education, exercise and so on). I also discussed evidence showing that the internet seems to be benign or beneficial for the social lives of the majority of young people who use it.
Greenfield noted, however, that not all of her concerns are addressed by the studies I mentioned (for example, that computer games might affect the ability to use metaphor and understand abstract concepts) and that some, possibly unwanted, outcomes will just not be measurable. Even though I find some of her concerns a little far-fetched, she has a valid point on how we should be aware of the limits of what empirical research can deliver for complex social issues.
The discussion afterwards was lively and constructive. We had input from someone working on the Digital Economy Bill, a head teacher, a paediatrician, educationalists, a Lord who – against all my prejudices – clearly knew shit loads about computers and several people who just spoke from their experience as parents.
Afterwards, Greenfield invited everyone for a drink and was a funny and engaging host and I got the chance to thank her for inspiring me when I was starting out.
I have a different opinion of Greenfield after the debate, as I previously suspected she had been struck by reactionary technofear but was mistaken, as she does want children to benefit from technology. She obviously thinks a lot of internet culture is trash, but when you look at the constant stream of seemingly irrelevant in-jokes and funny cat videos, I can hardly blame her for this.
Nevertheless, I think her passion for helping young people has overtaken her obvious good sense as a scientist and a scholar on this issue, and I would join the call for her to write her ideas up for publication in a scientific journal both to clarify her position and to stimulate engagement with the large evidence base that she is currently unfamiliar with.
I have criticised Greenfield’s more alarmist public statements in the past, but with her passion and experience as a neuroscientist, a well-informed Baroness Greenfield would be a massive advantage to the debate on how we ensure children learn to manage technology to their best advantage.
Full disclosure: The Institute of Psychiatry kindly helped fund my airfare and I wouldn’t have been able to attend without them, so many thanks for their support and belief in public and policy engagement.