Will Facebook 'infantilize' the human mind?

Social network sites risk infantilizing the 21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist profiled in the Guardian (UK).A professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford says there are broad cultural and psychological effect of on-screen friendships via Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.

Social network sites risk infantilizing the 21st century mind, leaving it characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist profiled in the Guardian (UK).

A professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford says there are broad cultural and psychological effect of on-screen friendships via Facebook, Bebo and Twitter.

According to Susan Greenfield, who spoke to the House of Lords, the experiences of children on social networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity."

Or as is colloquially but inaccurately called on these shores, the "ADD effect."

"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.

"It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder."

Greenfield also warned against "thrill of the moment" -type activity and the disregard for long-term consequence, which "can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating," and such immediate reward is "linked to similar chemical systems in the brain that may also play a part in drug addiction."

The Guardian reports:

She said she found it strange we are "enthusiastically embracing" the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites, since those that use such sites can lose a sense of where they themselves "finish and the outside world begins".

She claimed that sense of identity can be eroded by "fast-paced, instant screen reactions, perhaps the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others".

The constant reassurance of social networking sites -- coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation -- shows an erosion of the skills needed to be sensitive to another person and the conversational talents of being witty and inventive in back-and-forth, ad-lib conversation, she said.

"Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized 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. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction."

So for someone who has, say, 900 "friends" on a social networking site, Greenfield says they become less conscious of the individuals involved, less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about the person will be evaluated.

This ties in with a recent ZDNet post by Andrew Mager on The Web Life, questioning the Dunbar hypothesis that the average person can only maintain a maximum of 150 "friends" online.

What do you think? Will Facebook infantilize the human mind?