Twittering brains withering, expert warns

07:35, Mar 07 2009

Social networking sites are causing alarming damage to the brains of young people, a top British scientist has warned.

According to British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, sites such as Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and Twitter are contributing to shortened attention spans, a lack of empathy and more self-centred children who increasingly define themselves based on what others think of them.

Lady Greenfield a professor of snaptic pharmacology at Oxord University, told the British House of Lords that the rapid nature of social networking could also impede the ability of younger generations to communicate effectively in person.

"They [real conversations] occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones," she said.

"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sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf."

Lady Greenfield said it was hard to imagine the social network phenomenon not having an affect on developing brains which had been proven to be exceedingly sensitive to the outside world.

"One teacher of 30 years' standing wrote to me that she had witnessed a change over the time she had been teaching in the ability of her pupils to understand others."

A link between the rise of the internet and the increasing levels of Autism and ADHD was also entirely possible and should be looked into, she said.

"If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales.

"Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder," she said.

Autistic people were more comfortable communicating on computers and those with ADHD unable to concentrate for long periods of time.

Lady Greenfield's comments are the latest in a string of scientific and medical reports concerned about the effects of social networks.

Earlier this month, Dr Aric Sigmund, an expert in the biological effects of digital communication said the fact that people were spending less time together was making them less healthy and having a negative effect on their brain development.

In his findings, published in the journal of the Institute of Biology, he said social networking sites had played a significant role in virtual communication replacing that of face to face contact.

Less "real" contact could impact in immune responses as well as contribute to an increased risk of health issues including heart disease and diabetes, strokes and mental health issues such as depression.

More than 150 million people around the world are signed up to Facebook and millions more use Bebo, Twitter and MySpace.