The Bulletin talks to Susan Adele Greenfield, Baroness Greenfield, an English scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords (since 2001). | JAUME MOREY
The British neuroscientist and researcher Susan Greenfield gave a fascinating lecture, “The future of the mind, the mind of the future”, on Thursday night to a full house at the Bulletin sister paper’s Club Ultima Hora-Valores cycle of conferences in Palma.
Q.— Why should the internet have negative effects on human beings when everyone uses it without apparent concerns?
A. — I would challenge the second statement because people are growing in concerns. In the United Kingdom there has been an act recently passed in Parliament called The Online Safety Bill which is attempting to protect children especially from the negative effects of the internet.
There was also the case of Frances Haugen last year who was previously working for Facebook and actually spoke to the Senate in the States about and against all the problems that she saw that could be arising from extensive social networking use.
So I think that people are increasingly aware that there are serious problems that, although it’s a very powerful technology and very useful, it has to be considered with certain caution.
The effects, I think, are different for children than they are for adults, so people such as ourselves - I am assuming you are aged over 24 and born in the last century like me - already have a lifetime of living in a three dimension and having all five senses. So although we use the internet, we still have a lifetime on which we base those things, we have a lifetime within which we can put things into a context. By contrast, children born in the last ten years or last twenty years even - and bear in mind Facebook only started in 2007 - have that as their reality. They don’t have a childhood that was in three dimensions and stimulated by the five senses where you’d say let’s not follow the game and make up our own decisions. The effects that the internet and social media can have on today’s young people need to be taken into account.
Some things have already been noticed, such as that young people do not interact with peers in the same way or can be more hostile. There are problems of people losing self-confidence and this is all going to increase. It’s all tied in with the profile of how people are today.
Q.— Is the internet addictive, and do you think we can abandon it once we have tried it?
A. — The World Health Organization has classified internet gaming as addictive - internet gaming disorder, which has all the properties of addiction. But then it’s like asking if alcohol is addictive. We know for some people it is and for others it isn’t. So some people can have it as part of their real lives and use it in moderation whereas other people do indeed become addicted to it - especially young kids who show particular withdrawal symptoms when you confiscate their iPads compared to when you confiscate their other toys.
There is growing evidence that it can be addictive, it isn’t automatically addictive, but I say it’s comparable to asking if wine’s addictive, which it is for some and not others.
Q.— What social effects do you perceive that the internet generates after long use?
A. — I think on an individual basis one might end up with 500 friends but they are not real friends as we know them. So the concept of friendship might change. For example, for me a friend is someone who you will phone up in the middle of the night, someone who will lend you money, someone who will be there if you are having a tough time.
I don’t know if the so-called friend on the internet would fill these criteria; they are more like an audience or a group chorus in a play.
So I think the notion of friendship is different. I think people feel less confident and also have a rather fragile sense of identity which again impacts on how you are socially. If you haven’t looked people in the eye or you haven’t hugged someone, you haven’t experienced things in three dimensions. I think that in terms of social skills they will not be so competent as in the real world.
Q.— I imagine that you would not recommend that parents calm the hyperactivity of their child by giving them a mobile phone?
A. — Sadly, that’s what you see a lot. I don’t want to be rude about parents obviously, because they live such demanding lives and everybody is very rushed, but it is rather sad to see young children looking at a phone or an iPad rather than looking at the world around them or engaging with the outside world.
They are often given, as you say, screens in order to keep them quiet as it were. But The American Society of Pediatrics has very clear guidelines as to the age at which children should be allowed technology. What people need to take into account is that the developing brain is very easy to influence and that has to be thought of very carefully.
Q.— In some of your books you say that the internet affects the intellectual ability of young people.
A. — Yes it does. There is some work done by Twenge that shows a clear correlation, looking at time spent hourly on the internet with the academic scores of the children. That was done a few years ago, and it showed that intellectual abilities changed with duration on the internet.
And also there was a book written a few years ago, which I endorsed, called Screen Schooled by two teachers in Washington DC. Teachers are very good judges because they are not as biased as parents might be. They do see one generation after the other and they have noticed the change and it’svery compelling. It’s looking at changing intellectual abilities from the point of view of teachers.
Q.— But teachers themselves are encouraging the use of the internet
A. — Again, I think we have to be careful generalising and I think if you want to tell people facts, you are going to have teaching done electronically, but by the same token, one has to think very carefully about what one wants to achieve and how one is going to do it.
If you want to inspire a child, as teachers in the past have done, that’s not going to happen with a computer. I don’t know about you, but I did Greek at school because, as it happened, the Greek teacher was particularly charismatic and very exciting and you’ll find that a lot of people will say they remember a good teacher. Now, when would you ever say that about a computer?
Q.— Can you explain how a young person can be affected by reading on the internet rather than reading in a book. Is it better to read a book?
A. — A book is much better. Recent research at the University of Oslo deals with the differences between a paper book and an electronic book and it shows that something as simple as moving the pages, the sense of touch, is important, as is the permanence of paper as a medium.
Just the action of turning the pages reinforces what you retain and remember and its significance.
This has a big effect on education and on our lives and society. It is easier to understand a paper book than an electronic book.
There is also all the symbolism of actual physical books and the permanence that they have, whereas on the screen it’s very impermanent and that can make a great difference. For example, I have a study at home full of books and I wouldn’t want to replace them with a load of flash files. So books have a special significance in our civilisation, in our culture and in our thinking as well as just imparting information. Certainly one is better at understanding the comprehension if you do it from a book rather than from a screen.
Q.— Taking all this into account, why do you think the authorities continue to push the internet as a teaching tool?
A. —Well, it depends what you want to teach. It reminds me of Thomas Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. He talked about facts and teaching these children hard facts, nothing else matters but facts.
But the problem is, yes, you can teach facts, but facts are pretty boring unless you relate one fact to another, so it depends on what you want to teach and at what level.
If you want people to know facts, you can do that rather like you would program a computer. Now that is something which is a different type of learning from when you are expressing understanding. And to understand something you need to have a framework, a frame of reference where you can relate one thing to something else. So again it depends on what you want to teach someone. If you want them to understand something, that’s very different.
You can teach someone to say the right answer, but do they actually understand it? For example, my kid brother who is much younger than me. When he was small I taught him Shakespeare, and while he was able to recite certain parts, if he was asked what it meant, he would have no idea. So if you wanted to teach someone something like that, yes, you could give them a computer with the writing and they could read it. But how are they going to fully understand it?
So, I think we have to unpick more what we think about teaching and what we want to achieve with teaching.
Q.— Do you think that coexistence, living together, is affected by the massive use of the internet?
A. — Yes I think it is because we will have fewer skills for empathy and understanding. I think what the internet is doing is making people, especially the younger generation, rather like volatile three-year-olds.
That is to say people who are highly emotional and volatile but not very reasoning, people who can’t think in abstract terms and certainly people who don’t have the experience of interacting with other people. One way of experiencing other people is by reading novels and again you couldn’t have something like Jane Austen as a video game.
If you are spending a lot of your time playing video games, which emphasise sex and violence, then you are not going to have the experience of seeing the world through other peoples’ eyes, seeing how they think and feel about thing. If you can’t do that then it’s going to make coexistence much harder.
Q.— Do you think artificial intelligence is going to be a problem or rather is a problem?
A. — Yes, I think artificial intelligence is a problem - not for the reasons most people think - what concerns me is the people who are using AI for their motives and what they are doing. Again, what AI and computers don’t have is what we call agency, that is to say desires or emotions which motivate people to do things, even if they have learning capacity. What I worry about with AI is the people using it.