The net effect

Is life on the Internet having a disastrous effect on our children's minds? Or are they developing into the ultimate multi-taskers? E&T finds out.

Internet access is everywhere these days - in schools, households, and in many cases even the bedrooms from which children may soon lead us into the next phase of human evolution - or reveal themselves to have been damaged by too much time spent in the virtual world.

An overwhelming 99 per cent of children and young people aged eight to 17 regularly use the Internet in the UK, according to communications regulator Ofcom. In 2007 these children spent an average of 13.8 hours online per week, almost twice as long as they did in 2005.

Interviews conducted at the end of 2008 by market research agency ChildWise in more than 90 schools in England, Wales and Scotland found that 37 per cent of children now go online in their own rooms, including one in five of five-to-eight-year olds.

"This year has seen a major boost to the intensity and the independence with which children approach online activities," says the 'ChildWise Monitor Report 2008-09'.

Child web protection

Such increasing exposure to the virtual world, which is reinforced by a parallel growth in the use of Internet-connected console video games, is prompting those concerned with the well-being of children to ask questions.

Some of these questions - such as how we can protect children from accessing potentially damaging content, whether they are they safe from sexual predators and whether violent video games will convert them into violent human beings - are at least as old as the Internet itself. Some are even as old as television.

A much more recent question is whether this unprecedented, ubiquitous access to digital information, and the attendant mastery of information and communications technology is making our kids more intelligent than previous generations, or less.

It's a question that a growing number of sociologists, psychologists, teachers, neuroscientists and anthropologists are starting to ask - and one for which none of them claims to have a definitive answer yet.

That doesn't mean there aren't some interesting theories being put forward. Perhaps the most controversial comes from Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and member of the House of Lords.

Baroness Greenfield presented the main elements of her theory during a recent debate in the Lords about the growing use of social networking websites by children, and the adequacy or otherwise of the safeguards available to protect their privacy and interests.

Net effect on the brain

"One of the most exciting concepts in neuroscience is that all experience, every single moment, leaves its mark on your brain," she told the Lords. "So you have a unique configuration of brain cell circuits, even if you are a clone. It is this evolving personalisation of the brain that we could view as the mind, and it is this mind that could therefore be radically changed by prolonged exposure to a new and unprecedented type of ongoing environment, that of the screen."

Greenfield argues that "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 time--scales. Perhaps when, in the real world, such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention deficit disorder."

A short attention span is only one of the mental disorders that Baroness Greenfield thinks likely to be caused by prolonged exposure to the Internet in general, and social networking sites in particular. Others include the inability to empathise, a lack of sense of identity, and a tendency to sensationalise things.

At a time like adolescence, when there's a constant need for reassurance, a list of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of friends sharing a virtual network ensures that there will always be someone only a click away ready to listen to you, share a laugh, a song or a video clip.

But Baroness Greenfield warns that virtual socialisation comes at the expense of "a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation. Real-life conversations are, after all, far more perilous than those in the cyber world. They occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones.

"Moreover, according to the context and, indeed, the person with whom we are conversing, our own delivery will need to adapt. None of these skills are required when chatting on a social networking site," she added.

She even argued that communicating using Facebook, Bebo and similar social networking sites is an experience "devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised."

Educational value

Not everyone is convinced by these arguments.

"Someone coming from her position as a neuroscientist would have a lot of authority, and I feel a little frustrated that she is using that clearly without herself having spent any time actually seeing what happens in reality," says Chris Davies, course director for the MSc in e-Learning at the University of Oxford's Department of Education. Davies is also co-organiser of an ongoing seminar series titled 'The educational and social impact of new technologies on young people in Britain'.

If there is one thing Davies can't be accused of it is lack of experience in the field. As the director of the 'Learner and their context' project, which looks into the way learners use technology in the home, as part of the UK government's Harnessing Technology Strategy, he and his team of researchers have observed hundreds of children and young people interact with websites, video games and other digital entertainment and communication devices.

"We go to their own homes and sit with them, talk to them, we get them to show us some of the things they do and we talk with their parents as well," says Davies.

He says the thing that has struck him most strongly so far is the realisation that the PC or laptop is becoming "the nexus, the meeting point for all the things [these children] do. Some of them are very organised, and the computer is, in a way, where the organisation of their lives can be seen. It's not quite where they organise it but where they can view the different strands of their lives intersecting.

"Much of their social life is there. There's entertainment - they watch TV on demand on the computer, watch YouTube clips and download music - they do some of their schoolwork and follow up some of their personal interests. They're organising stuff, even when they don't think of it as organising. Far from distracting them with short-term events, some of the sites they use, such as Bebo, seem to be virtual places where they can construct a sort of multitasked picture of their lives. And they're quite skilful at it."

Multitasking

The main reason parents are buying their children a PC and hooking it up to the Internet is that they don't want them to miss out on the educational value this combination has when it comes to doing homework or satisfying a general need for knowledge.

However, when ChildWise researchers asked children 'What did you do last time you went online?', less than one in ten of them replied that they had looked up information for schoolwork.

"The young ones will particularly mention the value of the Internet for research and so on," says Rosemary Duff, research director of ChildWise. "I think the older ones take it for granted a bit and, if they're using it for school-related homework, they will probably be on Messenger or Facebook at the same time. The school use is not exciting."

Davies has been observing a similar phenomenon: "They are, as a matter of course, multitasking, albeit not all to the same extent."

He tells the story of a parent he interviewed who, in order to show her son that it was not possible to study and play games at the same time, once came up with a test.

"She gave him a physics test, asking him spoken questions while he was playing 'World of Warcraft'. And she said she was furious when his son came up with all the correct answers while he was sitting on his sofa and playing. She said she couldn't make any sense out of how this could happen."

The ability to multitask from such an early age could suggest that fresh nuances of intelligence are being developed and emphasised by growing use of the Internet.

"You can have two completely opposite arguments," says Davies. "The first one is that they're never really concentrating for any meaningful length of time, because they're constantly going back and forward between things (and I'd say when I work I do exactly that sometimes), but the argument could be that they're just distracted.

"The second argument is that, at least for some of them, they are in a sort of place, onscreen (and sometimes online) where they're doing their schoolwork in an enjoyable context. And, as a consequence, their schoolwork is not something they'd avoid as much as they might otherwise."

Just as frequently happens to Davies, as I write these lines I'm also checking emails, making a few phone calls, opening and closing several websites that I have been using as part of the research to write this story, and keeping an eye on some live football scores.

As Mark Johnson, a professor of psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, and director of the Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development, concluded in his paper 'Brain development in childhood: a literature review and synthesis for the Byron Review on the impact of new technologies on children': "Large amounts of time engaged in video games or on the Internet during childhood are likely to have both positive and negative effects on brain function and development.

"Positive effects on perception and attention may transfer to other computer-based tasks and beyond. These skills may be useful in an increasingly computer-based school and employment environment. Negative effects may include a lack of physical exercise (carrying general health risks) and a lack of expertise in fine motor skills relevant for whole body action."Perhaps as one skill develops, another has to dwindle.

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