Social networking sites 'changing children's brains'

Social networking websites are changing children's brains because they make young people more self-centred and cut their attention spans, a neuroscientist has warned.

By Matthew Moore

Popular sites like Facebook, Twitter and Bebo risk "infantilising" the minds of users, creating a generation of children who demand instant gratification, it is argued.

Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said she has concerns that internet-obsessed children were losing the ability to concentrate and communicate away from the screen.

Regular web users displayed a need for constant reassurance typical of small babies, she said yesterday.

In an earlier House of Lords debate she warned that conversations in chat rooms, message boards and on networking websites were replacing the face-to-face interactions that are key to developing a child's sociability.

"I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf," she said.

"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations."

Earlier this month Baroness Greenfield urged more research into a possible connections between high computer use among young people and the rising rates of autism.

Teenagers spend an average of 31 hours a week online, research suggests. Social networking sites that allow young people to keep in touch with their friends, publish photos and post updates on what they are doing are particularly popular.

Scientists are divided about the mental consequences of the digital revolution; a study published last year showed that internet use could improve brain function and speed up decision-making but at the expense of empathy and the ability to think in abstract terms.