Are social networks harmful?

Are social networking sites harmful? I wouldn’t have thought so particularly, but this is the topic of the week it seems. Dr Aric Sigman has written a paper in The Biologist (membership of the Institute of Biology to even see the contents list, let alone abstract, so no link) saying that “websites such as Facebook set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart.” – as reported by the BBC, here.

“In less than two decades, the number of people saying there is no-one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.”

Dr Sigman says he is “worried about where this is all leading”.

He added: “It’s not that I’m old fashioned in terms of new technology, but the purpose of any new technology should be to provide a tool that enhances our lives.”

And earlier in the month there was a debate in the UK House of Lords (part of our convoluted system of national government – think US Congress without elections and less power…) on social networking. This was reported on the Grauniad’s web site today, here.

In this latter article, I note the degree of similarity between some of Lady Greenfield’s comments on the changes to childrens’ minds brought about by digital technologies – and the changes in childrens’ minds described by e.g. Marc Prensky. Very different interpretation of whether these changes are good or not, however. Personally, I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle… TANSTAAFL. I’ll close with a quote from the Grauniad report,but note that the complete text of the debate is available online for any insomniacs out there – occaisional remarks in the debate show that some of the Lords are not completely out of touch with technology. (Baroness Sharp: “Lastly, children must be empowered to manage risk. As in the off-line world, one cannot eliminate risk completely; therefore one must build up resilience in children and educate them about the risks and how to minimise them.”).

Back to Lady Greenfield and the Grauniad:

She also warned against “a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.

“The sheer compulsion of reliable and almost immediate reward is being linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction. So we should not underestimate the ‘pleasure’ of interacting with a screen when we puzzle over why it seems so appealing to young people.”


2 thoughts on “Are social networks harmful?

  1. Steven Egan

    I find it interesting in that last quote that it is the “disregard for consequences” that is the problem. This is because I read and hear plenty from gamers that they would like to have more consequences in the games, and I agree. It’s also a key element in making games useful in education. The consequences of the gameplay can be a part of the motivation to play.

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    Hi Steven,

    Yeah, I spotted that too, but thought I’d leave it in the quote, as I think for the majority of the games it is fairly true. Even WoW has a ‘good guy’ quest with torture but no consequences.
    But there are a few games where actions do have consequences, or at least try to – Fable II is a good recent example. On the other hand, a lot of the D&D based games allow you to play a supposedly good character while brutally and needlessly slaughtering great hordes of NPCs.

    Two of my favourite games of all time are (genuinely, not just saying this!) Ico and Shadow of the Collossus. Both games which did manage to make me care a lot for the characters. (Contra Lady G.’s quote)


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