In Britain, a war is brewing between some of the country's most prominent scientists about "Internet brain." In one camp is Susan Greenfield, an Oxford neurobiologist who over the years has made sweeping claims about the impact of Internet use on developing brains, among them that internet use is linked to autism and that social media can harm children’s brains. In the other camp is a group of scientists, headed by University College London psychologist Vaughan Bell, who say Greenfield’s claims are entirely overwrought.
Last week after publishing a take-down of Greenfield’s work in the British Medical Journal, Bell duked it out with her live on British TV.
“What is your beef with Susan Greenfield and her science?” the news anchor asked Bell.
He had fighting words at the ready. “Up to date, there is no science to speak of,” Bell said.
Bell and his colleagues’ main beef with Greenfield is that she has so far refused to publish her work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, subjecting it to the scrutiny of other scientists. In BMJ, they also take issue with some of her claims about how screen time can negatively impact the developing mind:
Greenfield claims that social networking sites could negatively affect social interaction, interpersonal empathy, and personal identity. However, the bulk of research does not support this characterisation. With regard to social interaction and empathy, adolescents’ use of social networking sites has been found to enhance existing friendships and the quality of relationships, although some individuals benefit more than others. The general finding is that those who use social networks to avoid social difficulties have reduced wellbeing, while use of social networks to deal with social challenges improves outcomes.
This isn’t the first time this debate has come up among scientists. Experts are torn on the impact that all this screen time has on our brains, especially when it comes to still developing ones.
Last month, I visited an internet addiction rehab center in rural Washington state; its founder, psychologist Hilarie Cash, told me she observed the personality disorders described by Greenfield among her mainly twenty-something clients, disorders such as dependence, narcissism, anti-social behavior or life avoidance.
“I can see it getting worse when you’ve got generations coming up with even more screen time,” she told me.
In the Unites States, many experts have come around to the idea that the internet really can breed addiction. And Greenfield isn’t the first to hypothesize that there may be a link between technology and a rise in autism diagnosis.
But so far, as Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience researcher Kathryn Mills pointed out in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences last year, much of the research focused specifically on developing brains and the internet looked at teens who are described as addicted to the Internet.
Much of the research out there has focused on whether it’s even possible for internet use to become a problem, and if it is, what that problem might look like. Beyond that, studies have been incredibly preliminary. Some research, for example, has suggested that internet use may be changing how we think, but such research has only begun to offer hints as to how it could be doing so.
Bell and his cohort debunk this one, too. In their paper, they note that while there is evidence that when people know they can access information on, say, Google, they are less likely to remember it, “this effect applies to many situations and is not restricted to the use of technology; for instance, people who work in teams.”
There’s a long history of fear when it comes to technology’s impact on our lives. As Bell pointed out in Slate back in 2010, the 16th century scientist Conrad Gessner had similar concerns about how information overload from mass production of books might harm the mind after the advent of the printing press. Such observations have been made for centuries, and likely will be made for centuries to come, when we're wrestling with the impact of the chips in our brains and yearning for the days of the simple iPhone.
Mills and Bell’s papers both come to the same conclusion: we simply need more research.
“We need to recognize that use of the internet and digital technology has cognitive and social benefits and to balance these against any risks,” Bell and his colleagues wrote.
The fact that some people feel the need to check into an internet addiction rehab center is a compelling argument that the internet can harm people's lives, leaving them feeling isolated and broken and unable to live life outside of their screens. But that's a tiny subset of the general population that's online. Most of us have probably felt some impact on our own lives, maybe in the urge to constantly check Facebook or the phantom sensation that our phones are always buzzing. But the truth is the internet is a young technology with a broader impact we can't yet fully understand. With more research, though, one day we might.