Social Networking: Good or Bad?

Susan Greenfield, an eminent neuroscientist, has suggested that use of social networking sites such as facebook or Bebo can ‘infantilise’ the mind, by which she means reduce it to short attention spans, with an inability to empathise and a poor sense of self identity.

However, as with all such bold statements, her concerns about the decline of face to face interaction risks demonising a powerful tool for collaborative learning and 21st century communcation. Other scientists, led by Mizuko Ito, forming the Digital Youth Project at the Universities of Southern California and the California at Berkeley, found that in our increasingly technological world, the constant communication that social networking provides is encouraging useful skills. Their study looked at more than 5,000 hours of online observation and found that the digital world is creating new opportunities for young people to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills and work on new forms of self-expression.

Of course clear boundaries and proper safeguarding should be maintained by parents at all times, just as we would for any activity that our children participated in. However, given the interactive, Web 2.0 nature of social networking, wouldn’t you rather your child were socially networking than staring at the mind-numbing, poor role-modeling and language stunting shows prevalent on TV?


One thought on “Social Networking: Good or Bad?

  1. The Guardian added this piece on the debate:

    Are social networking sites really infantilising our teenagers?
    Adults should be wary of criticising young people for spending time on the internet. They are taking control of their lives

    There are some strange things being said at the moment about the mind-warping dangers of young people using the internet too much, especially for social networking purposes.

    Some “experts” have told us that young people are missing out on crucial benefits of physical proximity because of their enthusiasm for virtual social worlds, forgetting, perhaps, that they also spend several hours a day crammed into classrooms together. We’ve also been told that they are compromising their attention spans by spending so much time on sites such as Bebo and Facebook.

    These questions are entirely legitimate and deserve to be asked, but ideally not in the spirit of setting off another moral panic. It is not, after all, as if no-one has thought of them already. A considerable number of social scientists have been working in this area throughout the world for quite for some now.

    A team of us at Oxford University’s department of education are involved in such research, as part of a programme of work organised by Becta (a government body) in support of its “harnessing technology strategy”.

    Our project is looking at how young people aged 8 to 19 use technologies in their own time, at home. For the most part, what we are seeing is far from the anxiety-inducing picture presented in the media.

    The experiences of young people change as they grow older. Eight-year-olds engage in very little social networking, and for the most part are watched over and guided by parents who are only too aware of the dangers of letting their children loose in the cyber world.

    Many teenagers do begin to spend regular time on Bebo, a junior version of Facebook, as well as on MSN, sending chat messages to one another. They often play interactive online games in which the communication with other players is far more important than the details of narrative. It is far from obvious that these are negative experiences.

    Alongside such activities, youngsters are using their computers as the focal point for many other things they do each day: homework, watching TV on demand, listening to music and following personal interests such as video editing, composing music and surfing the web. It is clear to us that young people like the freedom, and the responsibility, that comes with being able to take control of these sources of communication, entertainment and knowledge for themselves. We have also been struck by the large proportion of them who are only too keen to get out and do other things. We are not seeing a generation of young people wasting their leisure time hypnotised in front of screens.

    Not everything they do, or encounter, on the internet is what any of us would judge as desirable, and not all of them spend their time wisely. However, we see a lot of evidence to suggest that, far from infantilising young people, the computer and the internet together provide a powerful means by which young people can begin to take control of their lives in ways which adults should be very cautious about condemning so readily.

    • Dr Chris Davies is course director for the MSc in e-Learning at the University of Oxford’s department of education.

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