Interacting on the Interweb

The latest furore surrounding the ‘potentially damaging’ nature of things like Facebook and Twitter is in swing, with the Daily Mail (safe to click! Minus images) interpreting a scientist’s views as social networking turning your kids’ brains to mush. Note that Martin does of course disagree – as do I.

Sciencepunk has taken the time to speak to Susan Greenfield herself to try to get a clearer idea of exactly what her concerns and suggested solutions might be, under all the media distortion and so on. He’s written up the interview for New Scientist. I take up her invitation to join the debate.

Unfortunately, listening to her speak I still find myself vehemently disagreeing with most of what she says for various reasons, including the fact that she clearly has very little or no personal experience of what she talks about, is missing some key issues and appears to wilfully ignore positive outcomes in favour of potentially negative ones.

That’s not very scientific!

So, let’s get ranty.

Context is everything

First I recall a comedy sketch (apologies for forgetting whose, do say if you know!) based on the occasions when Facebook is suddenly down/unavailable, in which the bereft individual wanders the streets shoving photographs in people’s faces and shouting “DO YOU LIKE THIS??”.

I laughed, because it’s absurd, we don’t do that… but hang on! We kind of do. I quite often show people pictures I’ve taken, be it on my camera, my phone, downloaded to my computer or even (omg old!) albums with pictures on actual photo paper!

Important to remember is that we behave differently in some situations compared to others; it’s a ridiculous fear that online behaviour is going to replace offline behaviour. They’re different things that don’t translate. Just as you don’t put your feet up on the table in a meeting vs. in the lounge, or take your shirt off and sit on your friend’s shoulders at a posh indoor concert at a swanky theatre.

We like to share our experiences with our friends, and sometimes if we’re a bit more serious about photography, get people’s input on our creative endeavours. That’s not a fault, it’s perfectly normal behaviour and taking feedback/constructive criticism/praise onboard is a good way to improve ourselves if that’s the goal.

Small-talk, seeking approval and helpful suggestions, presenting an image of ourselves – this is what we do in life, not just online. Does she also have a problem with in-person small-talk? Should we only ever be having super-meaningful conversations?

Sorry, but after our lab meeting we like to go and have lunch, talk about the weather, take the piss out of each other and show holiday photos, for example. We don’t spend all day talking about work or the latest world crisis; that would be draining and rather unhealthy, I’m sure most would agree.

In the same way, not all of my tweets or facebook status updates are serious. I share articles, I have a moan about things, we’ll have some discussions. But other times I’ll be swearing about a minor injury, taking a photo of the mouthwatering foods/lovely scenery I see before me or friends/pets making tits of themselves. Because life is a mixture of these things and if it weren’t, it’d be bloody boring.

Greenfield seems to want to make a connection between things like increasing autism rate and internet use. I’m pretty sure it’s well-accepted that the ‘increase’ in rates of conditions like this is due to better diagnosis and a clearer definition of what the condition actually is – these are recent things. There’s no good evidence (that I know of) to suggest the perceived increase is due to vaccines or playing on computers or anything else (edit: Jon Brock says it is indeed demonstrably false); it’s likely always been there, we’re just picking up on it better now. Which is good, because it means more people get the help and support that they need.

Also there’s been a ‘shocking rise in things like happy-slapping’?? Well of course there has, because again this term applies to a phenomenon that’s only been able to exist since mobile phones got video cameras. That does not mean that people didn’t go around beating other people up for fun and to show off to their friends before this era. Sadly I know this from personal experience as I’m sure many do, but good for her if she’s never had to deal with such things.

I do not believe for a second that these kind of people only exist because the internets have created them, by eroding their empathy circuits. There have always been nasty ****s and there always will be, sadly. Don’t blame the internet, or video games, or whatever the latest demon-you-don’t-get is.

When pressed for evidence, instead of offering some, she instead asks if we want to wait and see what kind of evidence emerges? *Ominous sound effect* – That is not an answer, it’s just silly scaremongering. She’s even placing weight in parental concerns, on anecdotes.

Parents will always be concerned about what their kids are up to, it’s the generation gap – every generation is both very different from (in terms of technology in particular) and the same as (regarding concerns, ‘we never did such things!’ ‘you whipper-snappers without any respect’! etc.) the previous ones. Again this is nothing new. To me it just sounds like she’s scared of change and using popular fears as an excuse to criticise.

It’s not so much the technologies in and of themselves that I’m criticising but how they’re used

Nail on the head. If your kid is spending 6 hours straight in front of the TV, damn well turn it off. Go for a walk. You can’t blame Nintendo for the people who spend their lives with the console running, you can’t blame Google for someone staying up until 5am looking at random websites. Discipline your kids and yourself and these things are like any other activity – perfectly healthy in reasonable amounts. Also if my child wanted to hug people for 6 hours, I’d be concerned at the level of clinginess they’d somehow developed.

Hi Ho Silver Lining

What gets me in a real rage about these attacks on social media, the internets and so forth, is that people (especially people who don’t even use it themselves, infuriatingly) are so very quick to not even bother considering the positive outcomes.

I’ve made similar points in the past but I’ll do so again ‘cos I can.

Some people aren’t comfortable in social situations. If you’re so concerned about the people on the austism spectrum, take a bit of time to learn what it is they struggle with, and what helps them. Even for those of us without personal experience of such things, sometimes we all have those days when we’d just rather not have to put on a smiley face and be around people.

For some, that’s more the default setting. That’s not because interaction with other people is completely off-putting, but sometimes the trappings that come with getting together ‘irl’ are just too much. If people are put off by the poking, liking and kind of sharing that happens on FB/Twitter then take a step back and look at what we do offline.

How should I dress? What should I say? What is the tone of my voice conveying? Is this rude? Will I upset them if I say that? What should I do in this situation? Do I have to smile now? Is eye contact creepy? No, if I look away, that’s impolite. Wait, I’m staring. Oh she thinks I’m a complete weirdo. I need to buy the next round? What are they laughing at?

Et cetera. You might not have ever thought these things, but many do, and social interaction can be a stressful experience – think of a time you just wanted to go home to the TV/a book/bed.

But most of us want to talk with people and share bits of our lives. If the above is a regular issue then the internet is an absolute godsend. Again I’m not going to waffle on about my personal reasons for thinking this but would encourage those who are scared of online things ‘replacing real life interaction’ to just stop and reconsider. Maybe, just maybe, the internet is actually a very fulfilling and stimulating environment that does give people a sense of identity and belonging in plenty of cases.

Of course, writing this on a blog isn’t the best way of conveying such a message, I know. So don’t whine at me about that!!

The wealth of information online, both factual things to learn and giving better access to ‘real life’ events and so on, it’s a huge resource that helps people immensely. Liaise with friends, make new ones, find a place to stay at short notice… the list is extensive.

People seem so hell-bent on discovering how damaging the interwebnets are for our brains, they don’t seem to be bothered about the good it’s doing. This happens with every technological leap, like television as she mentions herself; will it replace books?! No, of course not.

If you think Twitter is all people saying what they had for breakfast, I don’t want to talk to you about it. Either give it a try or listen to the people who explain it really isn’t, at least try to get a better idea, or shut up. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, as they say.

If you only update your facebook page to broadcast your personal life then don’t complain it’s all about gossip and invasion of privacy. These experiences are user-driven, they are what we make them, and if I see more of this pointless demonising, I will shout louder.

My friends, whom I cannot refer to as ‘online’ or ‘offline’ because they are largely both (except when there are huge oceans in the way), have kept me afloat when I’ve been too upset to talk on the phone, too much of a mess to leave the house or present myself to people face-to-face.

Thank FSM for the internet because without it… well, imagine! Where would I get to see parrots dancing to horrible pop songs hilariously or cats in all manner of sickeningly cute predicaments. Or indeed hear first-hand accounts from countries descending into civil war, or kids getting beaten by police at legal protests.

Life is not simple, nor is our virtual world. Embrace it/keep your distance, whatever. But don’t be so quick to demonise what you have not even tried to understand or see good within.

That’s the remit of rags like the one that published the silly, distorted story in the first place.

I’m not going to go into the video games criticism much; saying that actions don’t have consequences and this could affect how people think is just another I’ve-never-played-them sourced view, in my opinion, and I’ve had rants about all that before as well.

Edit: more people are irritated!

Dorothy Bishop has written an open letter to Greenfield regarding her comments. Edit (2): having received much support and thanks for her letter, one academic chooses to challenge her position. If you want to see how scientists fight, take a look.

Martin has a more serious piece addressing Greenfield’s somewhat shaky claim that she has never linked autism to internet use, following more high-profile individuals losing their rag with her, including Carl Zimmer – documenting the rise of the most amusing #greenfieldism hashtag.

It’s even made it to the Wall Street Journal!

Breaking!! Susan Greenfield causes autism!

16/8/11: More recently, Andrew Maynard (my fellow I’m a Scientist! 2010 contestant) has published an excellent analysis of Greenfield’s latest outing, which came in the form of a video statement published on the Guardian website.

Guns don’t kill people, Rabbids do

I wrote this back in 2008 but feel the need to post it, following this preposterous attempt to show how bad games are for kids. Methinks the problem here is having gun-toting redneck parents.

Edit 22/03/10 – OK this is what I’m talking about. Do not watch if you have high blood pressure.

Is gaming bad for children?

There is considerable opposition to the games industry but I know that there are plenty of healthy people out there (myself included) who enjoy video games a lot. People like to say “games are bad for children” and that “there are negative psychological effects” like implanting desires to go and shoot real people or steal cars. “They should be outside playing instead, not sat indoors!”

What games did (and do) for me

I have been using computer games since the age of 3-5, largely because my older brother bought and kindly let me use the latest gadgets (Commodore 64, Atari, Amiga 500). I also played in the woods, ate at the table and read books. Rather than playing things that mainly involved death and destruction, they tended to be educational games for learning maths, French etc. – brightly coloured with plinky-plonky music (they all had plinky-plonky music then!).

Dull-coloured games supposed to be more realistic just didn’t appeal to me (e.g. Shadow of the Beast on Amiga).  Similarly, children prefer to look at toys in shops over the home furnishings. I learned a lot from games; Pythagoras’ theorem from an Earthworm Jim cartoon, Japanese geography from Mystical Ninja (N64), Roman/Greek Gods from Populous and hilarious insults from Monkey Island (You fight like a dairy farmer! Well, you fight like a cow!). I drew my favourite characters & play songs on my keyboard. More exciting than school art/music!

In my second quinquennium I got into Street Fighter, Star Wing, racing titles and Deity-games like Populus. These had some violence and while I desperately wanted spikey wrist bracelets like Chun-Li for a while, I didn’t feel the need to act things out (that’s not a dig at you, cosplayers). How do you reconstruct shooting polygonal alien space ships/beating up electric green monsters anyway? My sense of reality was not blurred by gaming experiences. It’s obvious that the two are separate.

Perceived problems of gaming

Perhaps this is where today’s opposition comes from; games are more realistic. However, I (and others) find that this means graphics are a boring brown-green-grey mixture that is thoroughly uninspiring, I would have thought, to children.

Games like Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto get the Aunties and Uncles crying that we are filling our children’s minds with the desire to maim and kill. Do they take their little nieces and nephews to 18-certificate films containing sex, foul language and death? I doubt it, well I hope not – so why are parents letting them play 18-rated games?

I have no time for people who buy GTA for their 11-year-olds and are then shocked by killing prostitutes to reclaim money, outrunning police cars & aiding hardened criminals in various illegal activities for fun. No, I don’t personally like GTA but I know a lot of people who do. They are, importantly, well over 18 & can easily separate the virtual world from reality. Just as we have the watershed to protect children from unsavoury television, we have the certification of games. It is the fault of people who fail to pay attention to these if their child’s attitudes become warped, not the gaming industry itself. I don’t think any sensible person would call for the end of swearing, sex and violence in all films so I don’t see why it is reasonable to call for all disturbing video games to be banned. Just don’t go and buy them for your kids.

Literature, too. Anyone who’s read Stephen King must have at some point wondered what’s wrong with him – where does all that disturbing stuff come from?? I don’t recall anyone burning all his books, though. If you’re an adult you can choose what you want to do; go and see a violent film, read a freaky book, play a crime game.

Another common complaint is that gaming is anti-social. Really? I used to have friends come over for multiplayer, binging games I didn’t have. I didn’t play all day long – if your child is playing too much, stop them! Have a time limit, have the computer and TV where you can see it and take some responsibility.

The current gaming landscape

Now we have the world of online gaming. You can challenge/team up with people from miles away. Whether console-based or, for the more serious gamer, on PCs, this is surely a form of social interaction. I know that after being bullied throughout primary school, having the internet from the age of 12 (where my parents could see it, I hasten to add), really helped me. I could go to small chat rooms & talk to people without being in the same room, even people on the other side of the world! It was fascinating and it rekindled my interest in people and socialising.

Gaming communities within epic landscapes such as World of Warcraft allow some otherwise shy & secluded characters to re-make themselves into something they’re confident to show to others. Whether this translates to the real world or not, surely some interaction with others is better than none? Online capability is increasingly important in new releases, with the fun of playing death-matches with your friends in the same room extended to people you may not have met face-to-face… yet!

More recently, the Wii has brought us ‘active gaming’. We flail around, pull some muscles (Wii Sports baseball) and get a bit sweaty (boxing!). Maybe this will lead to more people of all ages going out and trying a new sport or just being a little bit more active than usual. We can easily move away from couch-potato-land if we embrace these innovations. No, it’s not actually tennis/bowling/skiing – so what? It’s more than watching someone do it on TV; it’s funny (laughing is healthy too) and sociable. Most people I know who play games also do some real sport and have other hobbies besides.

Nintendo hoped to change people’s gaming attitudes and the typical gaming audience. Now from the youngest to the oldest, male and female, people don’t feel alienated from the fantastic experience that is the video games world. I know it has enriched my life and friendships and sparked my imagination many times. While other consoles may be pushing for ever increasingly realistic graphics with more and more brown-green-grey, hordes of FP shooters, racing clones etc., Nintendo still leads the way in producing original, innovative titles, even if a lot of them recycle characters (with varying success).

Thank you, Ninty, for keeping my inner child alive.

Left: Deku Link; right: Link with Goron mask (Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; inspired by Wil Overton‘s original images )

Edit: Just found this talk, how gaming can save the world! Good stuff.

Addendum Re: today’s (10 March 2010) news story; how exactly do they know that the reason the toddler grabbed the gun was because she thought it was a wii gun (which are white and blue plastic)? Toddlers grab stuff, it’s what they do. If you leave a loaded handgun on the table, your parenting shortfalls are far more extensive than playing too many games, or indeed letting your children near games. Picking up a controller doesn’t kill you – shooting yourself in the stomach most certainly does. They are clearly not the same thing.

“It looks so real. I mean, when you take that and you can look at my glock, there are real similarities,” said Wilson County Det. Jeff Johnson. – er, well, kitchen knives look an awful lot like… knives… but if your kid stabs themselves with one you left on the floor, the problem isn’t with the fact that knives exist is it! Christ.

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