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More on the evils of social networking

February 26th, 2009

Dr Petra

Just when you thought the nonsense over the ‘Facebook gives you cancer’ story in the media had died down, it rose again like a bedraggled Phoenix from the flames as Baroness Susan Greenfield added her views that the internet/social networking sites are destroying children’s brains.

Or something. She may not have said that, but since none of us apparently have any attention spans because of being exposed to social networking sites, who knows what these scientists are saying?

Over at Bad Science you can enjoy the Newsnight clip where Ben Goldacre takes on Aric Sigman (he who began the ‘facebook=evil’ fracas) . I can’t help but noticing that as someone who seems convinced the media is bad, Aric Sigman seems incredibly well coached in appearing on TV. How does that work?

Meanwhile Mind Hacks have also joined in the debate, this time taking issue with the way Baroness Greenfield has raised issues about children’s neurological development – particularly her peculiar approach that she admits there’s no evidence but calls for research to be done to find the evidence she assumes might be out there.

It’s uncannily like Neil Fox’s infamous quote on the Brass Eye TV show tackling paedophilia where he stated “Now that is scientific fact – there’s no real evidence for it – but it is scientific fact”.

Confused? Oh well, not to worry, why not enjoy this humorous take on the whole affair from the Daily Mash.

The problem with this whole discussion is that it takes the usual lazy approach to studying media effects. You’ve got scientists speculating that certain effects are happening – without studying them directly and discarding any contradictory evidence that doesn’t fit their agenda. Then you have journalists jumping on the ‘media makes you bad/mad/thick’ bandwaggon without checking the evidence base (or any conflicts of interest particular scientists may hold).

Sadly this approach has been going on for many years and pops up time and again with discussions on TV violence, the effects on behaviour from computer games, the Internet, pornography and so on. Social Networking is the new bugbear but before that it was the Internet, before that computer games, before that video, before that movies, and so on back to the printing press and beyond.

Where this current approach is problematic is people are taking hunches and making them into generalisations about children’s development and people’s parenting skills. If you watch the clip on Ben Goldacre’s site where he debates Aric Sigman you’ll note how Aric talks (very emotively) about protecting children and how they could be harmed by being on the internet alone in their bedrooms for hours at a time. Quite so. I don’t think anybody would dispute how children who are left to watch TV, go online or play computer games for hours on end could have problems. But that’s more about the way they are being cared for and parental supervision. It’s about social and cultural factors, not the neurological functioning that Sigman and Greenfield are claiming are impaired. Sadly if you’re on TV claiming to be the defender of children people will probably listen to you even if your ideas are suspect because it’s emotive, and because it’s unclear that the claims you’re making are based on unsound science.

If scientists believe that the internet or social networking sites are affecting neurological development then they can generate a hypothesis to this effect and go out and test it. That’s good science. What’s not good science is to say you believe an effect exists before you’ve measured it. And it’s ethically dubious practice to make headlines with claims that haven’t been tested about effects that you think might happen to children. It might sound plausible, but unless you’ve tested what you think, you can’t make any definite statements about what is going on.

I find it shocking that people who make anti-(new)media statements always draw upon the ‘child protection’ narrative, which often causes panic among parents and young people themselves. Surely if you care about children you carefully identify any possible risks to them so that we can make sure genuine problems are tackled. It makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable that child protection rhetoric is often used as another word for censorship and scaremongering.

Discussions about the negative effects of social networking often hark back to the good old days where apparently children could all roam free, making friends in the ‘real world’ and enjoying those ‘real life’ activities. This represents a particular version of childhood that may not have existed in the past, and doesn’t necessarily exist now. I was particularly concerned by Aric Sigman’s view that you can only have a ‘real’ friend if you’ve met them in person. That’s a very specific view of friendship that fails to account a whole heap of evidence about what friends mean to people.

I’d draw Aric Sigman’s attention to the growing body of literature about e-learning (or online learning) where with the help of the internet people can now learn and share knowledge without ever having to meet in person. It’s invaluable to those working in rural communities or developing countries and permits a far more equitable access to education. But then, perhaps Aric Sigman would consider that as ‘not teaching’ as those involved haven’t met in ‘real life’.

Undoubtedly media (and new media) have an impact on our lives. That impact is variable and needs careful research. Sadly a lot of research that is undertaken tends to be funded or completed by those with particular agendas so you end up often with studies that ‘prove’ effects that aren’t really there. Or in the case of Aric Sigman a review that’s later retracted as an ‘opinion piece’.

As media develops so do our tools for researching it and the questions it may raise. Certainly we do need to think about the impact all new technologies can have on our lives. But whether we assume (new) media helps or hinders our psychological and social development we need to approach studies in a transparent way – otherwise we’ll continue to fuel social panics.

Anyway, I’m bored with this blog now, and if you’re still reading I’m sure you are too. Let’s forget all this boring science stuff and head back over to Facebook, find clips of dancing cats over at YouTube, or enjoy a good gossip over at Popbitch. Some days I can make all those activities pass as research – who says I’m neurologically challenged?

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