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February 2009

Risks from going Online announced?

According to a recent number of reports, online networking and computer games have been linked to a host of health risks, it can be revealed.

Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and head of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, is the latest to share her view on the ever growing debate, warning that young people's brains may be fundamentally altered by ongoing internet activity.

While concerns about children and computers have usually focused on issues such as forging inappropriate relationships online, or failing to get enough exercise as a result of being somewhat addicted to the screen, the baroness suggests that the consequences of going on the internet may be more profound.

Lady Greenfield told peers in the House of Lords that it would be worth considering whether the rise in autism - a condition marked by difficulties forming attachments - was actually linked to the increasing prevalence of screen relationships.

According to Lady Greenfield, real-life conversations "require sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones - those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously.

"Moreover, according to the context and, indeed, the person with whom we are conversing, our own delivery will need to adapt. None of these skills are required when chatting on a social networking site," says the baroness.

She adds, "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."

The baroness also suggests that increasing diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - ADHD - may be connected to the "near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies".

Recently, a report published in the medical journal Biologist, suggests that a lack of face-to-face contact could actually alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels and the function of arteries.

The author of the report, Aric Sigman also suggests that this could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia.

Nonetheless, people are spending ever more time online with social networking sites such as Bebo, My Space increasingly popular – even the BBC has its own type of social network site "my CBeebies" where young people can go online and design their own avatar.

Being Alone:

A number of studies have looked deeply at the negative effects of social isolation on health: ranging from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease to even outright death, which suggests that being lonely does not appear to be good for you.
But whether computers - and moreover social networking in particular - improve or exacerbate social isolation in the first place is a point of contention.

A spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK notes that there was no evidence to link the disease with using the likes Facebook and so on.

If anything, it has been suggested, that social networking may improve the quality of life of those with cancer by allowing those affected to make contact.

Baroness Greenfield meanwhile points out that those on the autism spectrum are particularly comfortable in the cyber world.

"She's right about that, but her analysis is the wrong way round," says Professor David Skuse, of the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the Institute of Child Health.

"The young people with autism we see do have a problem with face-to-face communication although they can be very articulate. They need to communicate and the internet is giving them a channel that they would not otherwise have.

He adds: "As for ADHD, it's true that I have yet to meet a child who could not concentrate on a computer. It seems to give them a way to focus in a way that lessons at school do not. Most of those with ADHD find their condition very distressing and want a way to control it - they want a way to focus."

Popular Fears

Nevertheless Baroness Greenfield's overriding concerns about an ever more self-absorbed generation who are unable to empathise with others do strike a chord with popular fears, says Helene Guldberg, a psychologist and author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear.

"Technology is something of an easy target when perhaps we should be asking more difficult questions about our relationships with our children”, says Helene.

"But it’s true that in an ideal world children would be freer to pursue their friendships and activities outdoors, on the street, away from the watchful and worried eyes of their parents.

"That doesn't make social networking sites wrong or damaging," she stressed. "But they shouldn't be the only option for children to communicate with each other - and let's not exaggerate the scale of the problem - we're not yet there."

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