Lady Susan Greenfield, the British neuroscientist, told the House of Lords last week that social networking sites like Facebook pose significant dangers for developing young minds. She called for research to investigate whether "the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade" might account for dramatic increases during that period in autism and ADD (even though autism and ADD tend to be diagnosed long before children spend much time on line).
In the same week Dr. Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, launched a second broadside directed at the online world, warning that facebooking, blogging, and other digital technologies put us at risk for cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia.
No one contests the fact that the digital revolution is changing how we communicate, sometimes positively, occasionally not. But while it's fashionable for high-profile commentators to lament the ravages and distractions caused by digital technologies, neither scientist had actual data to support their contentions about the somatic and psychosomatic damage caused by life on the screen.
Even so, Dr. Sigman stressed the health benefits of social contact and insisted that time spent online is responsible for the growing loneliness of modern life. And Lady Greenfield echoed this sentiment with her claim that "signing up for friendship through a screen" threatens to replace analogue talking: "Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf."
Dangers of Facebook: Lady Greenfield likens online conversation to shrink-wrapped meat. Or is it, as Dr. Sigman charges, just another form of alien abduction?
Lady Greenfield compared Facebook users to "small babies [who] need constant reassurance that they exist," insisting that "the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity."
Baroness Susan Greenfield, a scientist who appears regularly on British television, poses with pencil and paper, a technology she finds less infantilizing than the internet. [Photo: Alan Burles Photography]
Lady Greenfield added, in an interview with the Guardian, that the online world is more dangerous than other youthful distractions because young people today spend "more time indulging in the screen world than they would have previously spent rock & rolling or watching tv."
For Lady Greenfield, if Facebook shrinks your brain, then Twitter shrinks it even more. Baffled by "the current preoccupation with posting an almost moment-by-moment, flood-of-consciousness account – I believe it is called Twitter – of your thoughts and activities, however banal," she concluded that the internet is causing an erosion of identity. Greenfield quoted an intern in her lab who wondered, "Are we perhaps losing a sense of where we ourselves finish and the outside world begins?"
Her solution to the problem of cyberspace is as simplistic and as unsupported by research as her analysis of how computers affect us – just say no: "The Government could consider investing in some kind of initiative, the goal of which would be the identification of realistic alternatives – be it in the classroom, on the screen, in conjunction with the media, or in society as a whole – for developing a sense of privacy and identity and, above all, a real appreciation of friendship."
While Lady Greenfield is no stranger to the British media, Dr. Sigman is shunning the attention that his attacks on the internet have drawn. He objects – on his home page – that the media misquoted him. What he's really saying, it turns out, is that instead of causing cancer, Facebook will simply kill you by making you lonely: "Time online may be displacing face-to-face contact, and . . . lack of social connection is associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality" (emphasis added).
Despite denying that he connected Facebook with cancer, Sigman actually does suggest that loneliness, which may be caused by too much time online, adversely impacts cancer survival rates. And according to him, being by yourself – as, for example, when you're online – also causes "low-grade peripheral inflammation which, in turn, is linked to . . . diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, lupus)."
Although Dr. House might insist, "It's never lupus," Dr. Sigman cites study after study linking loneliness to disease. But his proof that Facebooking produces loneliness, making the web a breeding ground for germs, is not some elegant double-blind experiment, it's just a simple graph on which he plots studies documenting increased use of electronic media against an unrelated series of studies demonstrating that people interact with one another less today than they did 20 years ago.
As the graph below clearly illustrates, Sigman could just as easily have shown that digital media caused the fall of the Soviet Union, the decline in the world frog population, or the current economic downturn.
A modified version of Dr. Aric Sigman's graph, based loosely on his essay, "Well-connected?: The biological implications of ‘social networking’ (Biologist 56.1 [Feb. 1, 2009]: 14-20), shows that as electronic media use rises, everything else declines.
Before scientists attribute even more bogus physiological or psychological damage to the rapidly-growing digital revolution, they might consider this: literacy rates rose in Rome between the time that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, and the ouster of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor, in 476 CE, yet it never occurred to Edward Gibbon to blame the decline and fall of the Roman Empire on the rise of the book. Maybe, if Facebook doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger.