Author Slammed Over Claims Technology Harms Young Brains

"Less shock, more substance needed."

Megan Brooks

August 14, 2015

The authors of an editorial in the BMJ this week raise concern over claims that technology may harm young brains, as outlined in a book published last year.

The book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains (Random House, August 2014), is authored by Susan Greenfield, DPhil, a senior research fellow at Lincoln College of Oxford, United Kingdom.

The debate over the effects of digital technology on the brain needs "less shock and more substance," write Vaughan Bell, PhD, of the Division of Psychiatry, University College London, United Kingdom and colleagues in an editorial published online August 12.

"Misleading" Information

"In terms of social, emotional, and mental well-being, for the vast majority of people, there is no strong evidence of harm and some evidence for a slight benefit. To help young people, we should be more focused on the practical consequences ― avoiding too much sedentary activity to ensure good physical health and being a good online mentor to help avoid bullying, fraud, or distressing material," Dr Bell told Medscape Medical News.

"In rare cases, some people do show patterns of unhealthy use of games, Internet applications, or digital technology, but this is unlikely to be a reflection of the technology itself and more likely to be a result of underlying emotional or behavioral problems, which we know can result in unhealthy patterns of behavior in many areas of life," he said.

There is currently no evidence from neuroscience studies that typical Internet use harms the adolescent brain, Dr Bell and his coauthors write, adding that Dr 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."

Author Responds

Asked to respond, Dr Greenfield told Medscape Medical News, "I have never suggested that reasonable use of the Internet damages the adolescent brain. However, intense use of the Internet and video games does indeed lead to changes in the physical brain comparable to drug abuse, as in the recent review" (Weinstein et al, Am J Addict. 2015;24:117-125).

Dr Greenfield said she concurs "wholeheartedly that reasonable use of the Internet may have no significant impact on an individual. However, recent research shows that some teens are now using up to 18 hours of technology per day when taking media-multitasking into account."

Dr Bell and coauthors also take issue with the book's claims that social networking sites could negatively affect social interaction, interpersonal empathy, and personal identity, noting that the "bulk of research does not support this characterization."

In response, Dr Greenfield provided Medscape Medical News with what she called a "nonexhaustive" list of 11 peer-reviewed publications "demonstrating how social networking can impact an individual."

The editorialists also raise concern about statements in the book that online interaction might be a "trigger" for autism or "autisticlike traits." This claim, they note, "has no basis in scientific evidence and is entirely implausible in light of what we know of autism as a neurodevelopmental condition that can be first diagnosed in the preschool years."

Dr Greenfield countered that the book uses references such as these to merely point out links, such as the following:

  • A link between atypical brain wave responses in problematic face recognition, characteristic of autism and also of heavy Internet users (He et al, 2011)

  • A link between early screen experiences and later development of autism (Waldman et al, 2006)

  • A link between autistic conditions and an appeal of screen technologies (Finkenauer et al, 2012)

  • A link between autistic spectrum disorder and compulsive video game use (Mazurek and Engelhardt, 2013)

Sensationalized View

Dr Bell and colleagues write that "despite 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."

Dr Greenfield replied: "Because the relevant topics span neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and many other disciplines, with numerous peer-reviewed publications, it was necessary to synthesize the wide and diverse current literature in a meaningful way that would be understandable and accessible to the general reader.

"Mind Change sets out to do just that, and cites some 250 peer-reviewed papers to support the current picture. As this field of research is emerging and evolving continuously alongside technology, the goal was not to produce simplistic nor definitive sound bites but to encourage informed debate about how technology can, and is, changing our minds."

Dr Bell countered that "there is now a large and increasing body of research on the effects of digital technology, which often addresses many of the worries that parents might have. Sadly, the relevant evidence rarely gets the same air time as the concerns themselves, meaning many parents are left with a sensationalized view of the dangers and little guidance in helping their youngsters use the online world safely and constructively."

In a blog post, Dr Greenfield said Mind Change is intended to incite debate. She told Medscape Medical News, "The contribution from Bell and his colleagues in BMJ could actually be seen as a positive step forward: several years ago, before writing Mind Change, many were dismissive of the suggestion that technology could shape the mind. Now there appears to be a debate on how, rather than if."

BMJ. Published online August 12, 2015. Editorial

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