Reading Susan Greenfield’s new book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, is a bit like browsing the Internet: You notice plenty of contradictions, generalizations, and bad prose, but it’s intermittently interesting if you wade through the muck. Since her subject is the effect of digital media on the human mind, this might seem like an elegant case of a book’s form supporting its argument. Maybe she wanted to manifest in her own work precisely the scattered and superficial qualities that she thinks digital technologies are inflicting on humanity. Then again, a different conclusion is also possible: People who decry the demise of printed books may not be particularly good at writing them.
This doesn’t mean that digital technologies are not adversely affecting everything from attention span to empathy to memory. Some of the studies that Greenfield describes are genuinely troubling. Parents might reconsider a laissez-faire approach to their kids’ gaming after learning that playing violent video games tends to make people more prone to aggressive actions in the real world (in one study, subjects were more likely to blast other participants with a loud noise they were told caused permanent damage).
But she also mentions research that suggests frequent gamers might be better at rapidly processing information, switching between tasks, noticing small details, and retaining information in short-term memory. Still other studies indicate that gaming might be bad for sustained attention. Part of the problem here is distinguishing correlation and causation. Perhaps kids with ADHD are more likely to enjoy video games, or maybe playing video games really does increase the likelihood of ADHD. The same dynamic characterizes violent games: It’s not clear whether kids with violent tendencies are more likely to enjoy first-person shooter games, or whether such games encourage violent tendencies.
Rather than carefully sifting through different studies by assessing their merits and methodologies, Greenfield tends to simply spew forth an undigested mass of statistics and ostensible facts. We learn, for instance, that nearly half of all Japanese women between the ages of 16 and 24 are “not interested in or despised sexual contact,” while nearly a quarter of Japanese men in that age range are similarly asexual. Even if this survey didn’t use dubious sampling methods, which seems biologically improbable, it still wouldn’t follow that digital media are solely or even primarily responsible for draining an entire nation’s youth of sex drive.
It’s vaguely interesting that 21st-century students score higher on indices of narcissism and lower on empathy surveys than students 20 years before. But the same questions about methodology and causality arise: How effectively can a survey measure empathy or narcissism? And even if the trends are real, how can we establish the precise causal role of digital technologies in these phenomena?
It’s also interesting, if not terribly surprising, that individuals with low self-esteem tend to spend more time using Facebook than people with high self-esteem. Her explanation is that Facebook allows for a significant degree of identity-airbrushing. You can easily project an ideal version of yourself on social media; the less you think of your actual self, the more time you may spend curating your digital one. A related finding was that people who merely consume news about others tend to feel lonelier after using Facebook. Only those users who actively communicated with existing friends reported increased feelings of bonding and decreased loneliness.
Other research on Facebook, however, seems embarrassingly obvious or plainly dubious. Greenfield quotes so-called researchers who have reached this brilliant conclusion: “Overall, these findings suggest that exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may obstruct the process of healing and moving on from a past relationship.” Translation: Stalking your ex shortly after a breakup may not be a great idea.
It’s intriguing that high levels of Facebook use are associated with cheating, breakups, and divorces. But such an association does little to clarify whether Facebook is a symptom or cause of relationship pathologies. And to claim, as one source that she cites does, that Facebook “was implicated in 33 percent of marriage break-ups in 2011,” just sounds like bad social science. What exactly does it mean to say that Facebook was “implicated?” Did people merely post news of a divorce as their status? Were they driven to divorce by excessively ardent gazing at the profiles of past lovers?
It’s a shame that Greenfield does not explore the cognitive effects of using digital media more thoughtfully. Some of the research—like one study that found that people were less likely to remember information when they were told it had been saved on a computer—does suggest that we are outsourcing work to machines that was previously done by our minds. This is a fascinating and important topic, and one that was treated well in Nicholas Carr’s recent book, The Glass Cage.
Greenfield, or an enterprising editor, titled her book Mind Change to evoke an analogy with climate change. Both are subtle and complex processes that encompass a number of feedback loops and dimensions. Both have their doubters, but in Greenfield’s view, both are undeniably destructive.
Reasonable people no longer dispute the reality of climate change, but the science on the impacts of social and digital media seems murkier. It would have been interesting for Greenfield to explore the funding sources, biases, and agendas of the various researchers. A study funded by Facebook would have roughly the credibility of the climate change study funded by an oil company.
Perhaps in a few decades people will look back and wonder how we could have been so cavalier as to embrace the obvious evils of digital technologies. Or maybe complaints about these technologies will obey the same pattern as earlier cultural anxieties that surrounded everything from the printing press to the television. It’s easy to mistake something that changes the world for something that destroys it.