Digital tech, the BMJ, and The Baroness

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection. Click for source.The British Medical Journal just published an editorial by me, Dorothy Bishop and Andrew Przybylski about the debate over digital technology and young people that focuses on Susan Greenfield’s mostly, it has to be said, unhelpful contributions.

Through appearances, interviews, and a recent book Susan Greenfield, a senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, has promoted the idea that internet use and computer games can have harmful effects on the brain, emotions, and behaviour, and she draws a parallel between the effects of digital technology and climate change. Despite repeated calls for her to publish these claims in the peer reviewed scientific literature, where clinical researchers can check how well they are supported by evidence, this has not happened, and the claims have largely been aired in the media. As scientists working in mental health, developmental neuropsychology, and the psychological impact of digital technology, we are concerned that Greenfield’s claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large.

It continues from there.

I was also on Channel 4 News last night, debating The Baroness, and they seem to put some of their programme online as YouTube clips so if our section turns up online, I’ll post it here.

UPDATE: It disappeared on the Channel 4 site but it seems to be archived on Yahoo of all places. Either way you can now view it here.

Greenfield was lovely, as on the previous occasion we met. Actually, she didn’t remember meeting me before, despite the fact she specifically invited me to debate her on this topic at a All-Party Parliamentary Group in 2010, but I suspect what was a markedly atypical experience for me, was probably pretty humdrum for her.

Either way, she trotted out the same justifications. ‘I’ve written a book.’ ‘It contains 250 references.’ ‘The internet could trigger autistic-like traits.’

Dorothy Bishop has had a look at those 250 references and they’re not very convincing but actually our main message is shared by pretty much everyone who’s debated Greenfield over the years: describe your claims in a scientific paper and submitted them to a peer-reviewed journal so they can be examined through the rigour of the scientific process.

Oddly, Greenfield continues to publish peer-reviewed papers from her work on the neuroscience of Alzheimer’s disease but refuses to do so for her claims on digital technology and the brain.

It’s a remarkable case of scientific double standards and the public really deserves better.
 

Link to ‘The debate over digital technology and young people’ in the BMJ.


So the video of my debate with Greenfield is up online but it seems like you can’t embed it so you’ll have to follow this link to watch it.

Watching it back, one thing really stands out: Greenfield’s bizarre and continuing insistence that using the internet could ‘trigger’ autistic-like symptoms in young people, saying that most kids with autism are not diagnosed until age five and many use computers before.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism is, and how diagnosis is done. Autism is diagnosed both on presentation (how you are at the time) and history (how you have been throughout your life) and to get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder you have to demonstrate both. So by definition, being ‘turned autistic’ at age 4 or 5 doesn’t even make sense diagnostically, let alone scientifically, as we know autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental condition.

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