Just about every week, a TV news segment or magazine cover scares us with the prospect that new media technology is damaging our brains, our social skills and our culture. But, says neuropsychologist Dr. Vaughn Bell, take a long look back and you’ll see that every new development – from the printing press to radio to Facebook – has been regarded with suspicion.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just about every week, a TV news segment or magazine cover scares us with the prospect that new media technology is damaging our brains, our social skills and our culture. But if you take a long look back, you would see that every new technology, including the magazines and TV programs now scaremongering about the Web, were also once regarded with deep suspicion. In an article in Slate this week, Dr. Vaughn Bell, a clinical psychologist at King’s College London, reviews some historical highlights of hysterias past. Dr. Bell, welcome to On the Media.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you begin by talking about Conrad Gessner?
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Well, Conrad Gessner was a very famous 16th-century Swiss biologist, most renowned for founding the science of zoology. But what he was also interested in doing was cataloging every book in existence in the 16th century, which he sat down to do, and eventually wrote the Bibliotheca universalis. Through this process, he became absolutely outraged at what he called the “confusing and harmful abundance of books” [BROOKE LAUGHS] which had flooded the 16th century world through the invention of the printing press. And, in fact, he called on the kings and princes of the time to solve the problem and regulate the book trade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you skip ahead a few decades, maybe a century, to the wide circulation of newspapers. And there was a similar worry about information overload.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Yeah, I mean, this was a big concern at the time. The French statesman – apologies if you speak French – I shall call him Malesherbes - kind of railed against the newspaper. He felt that it was causing people to be isolated. He criticized newspaper readers as spending their time in a sullen silence and was concerned that this damaged society and took people away from getting their news from the pulpit, which is where the kind of wholesome news came from, or so he said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was anyone worried about the effects that radio would have on our brains or our attention?
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, whenever these scares come about, usually it’s scares about children. When the radio arrives, there’s a huge number of articles discussing the fact that, you know, kids spent their time huddled ‘round the radio, were neglecting their schoolwork. They couldn't sleep at night because of listening to all these dreadful radio programs, and this was kind of disturbing their fragile minds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At one point, schoolwork was considered to be a danger to fragile minds.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: It was considered to be a serious danger. I mean, there was a huge amount of debate about the fact that compulsory schools were taking children away from their natural development. People were concerned too much study would strain the mind and damage the brain. And there was a huge amount of concern among psychiatrists at the time. In a very famous book by a British psychiatrist Prichard, A Treatise on Insanity, he had “excessive studying” as one of the main causes, moral causes of insanity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So could you run down the current crop of fears related to the newest new technology?
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Well, of course, this is almost all based on kind of the Internet now, and on a fairly regular basis, every week, every month you'll see quite shocking headlines. I'm just having a look at a few of them now. This is one from CNN which says that emails “hurt IQ more than pot.” This is a story from a British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, that says, “Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn.” “Facebook and MySpace generation cannot form relationships.” And one of my favorites is from the British paper The Daily Mail, which is famous for its bad science headlines: “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer.”
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And only last week they warned that the Internet rewires the brains and makes teenagers vulnerable to mental illness. Now, of course, none of these stories have any serious science behind them, and yet, they regularly make huge national and international publications.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you cite a study - actually, it’s a meta-analysis – and it comes to a surprisingly different conclusion from the headlines you just read.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Yeah. So, I mean, a meta-study is a study that looks at all of the evidence to date and mathematically aggregates it to see what the overall effect is. And this was a study done recently by the National University of Education in Taiwan, and they looked at all of the studies on Internet use and psychological well-being, and they found that the Internet was associated with a change in our well-being of less than 0.1 percent. So the best evidence to date shows that these things really aren't doing us any damage, and yet, time and time again we see these fairly scary headlines appear in the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it surprise you that the very same fears seem to recur? New technology, no matter when, no matter where, shortens our attention span, degrades our social ties. Socrates complained that writing things down was bad for your memory.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Yes, I mean, he also warned parents against telling children improper allegories.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I have a lovely image of young Greek children behind the chariot shed swapping dirty allegories.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] This doesn't mean to say that every technology is harmless. There’s quite a bit of evidence now that the amount of hours spent watching television by very young children is associated with a delay in their cognitive development. But very few of the scare stories that get in the media are about television, because that’s kind of an old-hat technology now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You end your piece with a paraphrase of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: And he observed that technology that exists before we were born seems completely normal, anything that someone invents before we turn 35 is kind of exciting and new and shiny, and anything that comes after that is treated with suspicion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the beautiful thing is that you can extrapolate back to the [LAUGHS] ancient Greeks.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: Yes, and I can extrapolate forward. You know, when I'm 40 I expect to be tutting and worrying about my children and the young people because something they're using is really not to my liking, either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Dr. Bell, thank you very much.
DR. VAUGHN BELL: A pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dr. Vaughn Bell is a neuropsychologist at King’s College London.