Srsly, it’s in the Daily Mail. And it’s not the Mail saying it – oh no, it’s scientists. The article begins by claiming that “Predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally, a study has found.” According to the Mail, scientists say the system trains young people to be fast but inaccurate, and claim this makes them prone to impulsive and thoughtless behaviour in everyday life.
This sounds rather worrying – as if predictive texting is training young people to be impulsive and thoughtless in general. However, as the Mail points out, the study compared the mobile phone use of children aged between 11 and 14 with the results of IQ-style tests they took on computers. They don’t seem to have looked at impulsiveness in other situations, so we don’t know if these children will be any more impulsive in making decisions (as could be inferred from the reporting of the study). All we have is a suggestion that predictive texting may lead to increased speed and decreased accuracy in an IQ test. It’s also unclear whether they actually studied the effects of predictive texting – the study apparently just looked at mobile phone use rather than specific aspects of use. The scientist quoted in the Mail says “We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive text, is behind this”. That it is predictive texting specifically that ‘changes children’s brains and makes them impulsive’ seems to be a suspicion, not a research finding then – yet it is the subject of a headline in a popular daily newspaper that claims “predictive texting takes its toll on a child’s brain“. According to the abstract, “The principal exposure metric was the total number of reported mobile phone voice calls per week […] The findings were similar for total short message service (SMS, also known as text) messages per week”. So is it phone use, texting, predictive texting, or something else that is responsible for the findings? This seems, to me, to be far from clear.
And now look who has an opinion on texting: Susan Greenfield. Baroness Greenfield, writing in the Daily Mail, ends her piece by saying “heaven only knows what trouble we’ll be in when Generation Text is making the decisions” The questions that intrigue her are: “Does growing up in an environment where pressing a couple of buttons results in seeing the word you want on your screen, conditions the brain into thinking that the whole world works that way? Will future generations expect everything to happen in an instant? Will they expect technology to do their thinking for them? And will that, in turn, impair their ability to think for themselves?” Well, we don’t know and speculation in the Daily Mail isn’t going to get us any closer to finding out. How about, um, doing some research Baroness Greenfield? It would be a bit more impressive if you were able to provide us with something a little more substantial than your recent comments on Facebook*, computers**, and mobile phones that have been based on speculation. In January 2000 Susan Greenfield was awarded the CBE for her services to the public understanding of science. In my opinion, her current media activity is contributing to the public misunderstanding of science.
**According to a piece in the Mail that drew heavily on Greenfield’s opinions, the current increase in autism could be linked to people spending time in “screen relationships” [Note: I have paraphrased Baroness Greenfield here].
In a similar vein, multitasking is also responsible for a perilous cocktail of brain problems. It seems that “brain problems” are a current preoccupation of the Daily Mail.
Some people bemoan the amount of time children and young adults supposedly spend on the internet. I have a hunch that they are spending less time watching television or playing on games consoles and that any increased amount of internet time is not impinging on activities that those gloomy about internet activity would prefer children and young adults to be doing – for example reading books. Following a tweet from @vaughanbell, I saw in an article the claim that “Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages 12-18) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey.”