Social network sites risk infantilising the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist.
The startling warning from Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, has led members of the government to admit their work on internet regulation has not extended to
broader issues, such as the psychological impact on children.
She told the House of Lords that children's experiences on social networking sites are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short
attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.
Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: 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.
She also warned against "a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again;
everything you do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This
type of activity, a disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.
Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. 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.
The solutions, however, lay less in regulation as in education, culture and society.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) called on the social networking website Facebook to feature its alert button following the conviction of Peter Chapman for the murder of Ashleigh Hall. Chapman posed as a teenager on
Facebook in order to 'groom' Ashleigh, 17, before raping and murdering her.
Jim Gamble, the chief executive of CEOP, said 267 reports of suspicious activity on Facebook had been received in 2009 but users had been unable to log their concerns directly with his agency. Facebook itself had brought only a handful of cases
to the attention of the unit, which investigates online paedophile activity.
Facebook indicated that it would resist the demand to put the CEOP alert button on its site because it believed its own reporting system was adequate. Sources said that Ashleigh Hall had also made contact with her murderer via MSN chat sites,
which do carry the CEOP button, but she did not use it to alert the authorities.
A spokesman for Facebook said: The safety of Facebook users is our top priority. We have reporting buttons on every page of our site and continue to invest heavily in creating the most robust reporting system to support our 400 million users.
Facebook users will be able to report suspicious online behaviour and access internet safety advice with the launch of a new application. Users of the social networking site will be able to access an advice centre from their homepage, where there
will be a dedicated facility for reporting inappropriate sexual behaviour.
The facility is the result of a initiative between Facebook and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and users will be able to add the ClickCEOP service as an application to find information about online safety.
An advert for ClickCEOP will appear on the homepage of every user aged between 13 and 18.