SCIENCE: by Tim CannonNews Weekly
Can computer games harm children's brains?
, November 14, 2009
As any parent will tell you, there is something intuitively troubling about the hold which computers exercise over the web-generation - those children who have never known a world without computers.
|Baroness Susan Greenfield.|
Left to their own devices, many children could quite happily spend their days glued to the computer screen. Indeed, it is not just children who find themselves in thrall to the ubiquitous digital portal - adults are also increasingly likely to while away the hours in front of a brightly lit screen, exploring a binary wonderland of communication, information and recreation.
For the most part, intuitive parental concern about the impact on children of computer usage has rested upon less-than-firm foundations: untested hypotheses and hunches that all is not well.
Enter neuroscientist and member of the UK's House of Lords, Baroness Susan Greenfield. A professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, the baroness is a widely published expert on the neurological aspects of Alzheimer's disease. In the course of her work, Greenfield has recognised that her research may well have significant implications for understanding the impact of computer use on young brains.
In particular, Greenfield has noted the eminent plasticity of the human brain. Addressing the House of Lords in February this year, Greenfield explained that, from a neurological perspective, "every single moment, leaves its mark almost literally on your brain". Importantly, the impact of external stimuli on the brain is physical, such that the brain's architecture undergoes observable changes according to the stimuli it receives.
As an example, she cites a study conducted on London taxi-drivers, whose need to remember countless street names and routes has the effect of physically enlarging that part of the brain related to memory.
As Greenfield notes, none of this is new: the ability of the human brain to adapt has long been understood as one of the key factors in establishing us at the top end of the food chain. What is
new, however, is the environment within which the human brain now functions, and the astonishing speed at which this environment has changed.
A quarter of a century ago, computers existed in giant university facilities, not in the home. Now, Greenfield notes, some children routinely spend six hours each day at a computer. Indeed, an Iowa State University study, published last month in the US journal Psychophysiology
, revealed that some tertiary students there were spending up to 60 hours per week playing computer games.
According to Greenfield, there is no doubt that such sustained exposure is having an impact - and a physical
impact no less - upon the brains of today's youth. Exactly what kind
of impact is less clear. At this point, the prognosis is not good.
In particular, Greenfield has called attention to the potential impact of stimulus-intensive video games, which deliver an uninterrupted stream of audio-visual thrills, but without real-world consequences. Speaking to the ABC's Lateline
in September this year, Greenfield noted that the on-demand delivery of such stimuli, resulting in a pleasurable experience ostensibly for the sake of pleasure itself, may be establishing in children an expectation of constant stimulation, leaving them ill-equipped for a world in which hardship, struggle and suffering are simply inevitable.
Also under scrutiny are social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, whereby children are able to maintain round-the-clock computer-based contact with online "friends" (with whom they may or may not be acquainted in the real world). Reducing communication to bite-sized grabs of manicured transcripts, such sites threaten to hamper children's ability to engage in real-world personal conversation and interaction.
Says Greenfield, online communication can be "devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term relevance", and children may be losing the capacity for genuine empathy, so distracted are they with the prospect of constant attention, affirmation and stimulation.
Already, it is apparent that young people's attention spans are shrinking. The Iowa study found a clear inverse correlation between the amount of time spent playing computer games and a person's attention span. Tasks devoid of pleasurable stimuli may simply be too boring for some children to complete. At stake is the ability to persevere through difficulty in pursuit of a desired goal.Brain function
As Greenfield freely admits, the science on such hypotheses is far from settled. What's more, some computer games have been shown to enhance
brain function, and are designed specifically for that purpose. Unfortunately, such games do not appear to account for the vast quantities of time young people are spending at the computer.
For parents, it is sufficient to note that those intuitive concerns over children's growing attachment to all things computerised are becoming increasingly fortified by the likes of Baroness Greenfield. And as children's brains physically warp to the shape of the virtual landscape, it may not be such a bad idea to reach for the off-switch and toss them out the back door every once in a while.Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Australian Family Association.
Jonathan Leake, "Top scientist backs workout for brain", The Times
(London), August 26, 2007.
Susan Greenfield, "Modern technology is changing the way our brains work, says neuroscientist", Daily Mail
(UK), May 9, 2008.
Baroness Susan Greenfield's speech, House of Lords: Hansard
(UK), February 12, 2009.
David Derbyshire, "Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist", Daily Mail
(UK), February 24, 2009.
Karen Barlow, "Online lives affecting young minds: scientist", Lateline
, ABC TV (Australia), September 14, 2009.
"Professor Greenfield joins Lateline", Lateline
, ABC TV (Australia), September 14, 2009. Transcript of Tony Jones's interview with Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield.
Kira Bailey, Robert West, Craig A. Anderson, "A negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control", Psychophysiology
, October 2009.