Baroness Susan Greenfield says ‘mind change’ is the dark side of social media

TRANSIENT WORLD: Renowned neuroscientist Susan Greenfield says kids who are online don't learn eye contact or how interpret tone of voice. Picture: Marina Neil

TRANSIENT WORLD: Renowned neuroscientist Susan Greenfield says kids who are online don't learn eye contact or how interpret tone of voice. Picture: Marina Neil

COULD the resurgence of ink on young people’s skin be linked, in some way, to social media?

It’s a musing of Baroness Susan Greenfield, the renowned neuroscientist, author and member of Britain’s House of Lords who toured the Hunter Medical Research Institute on Monday.

The baroness, most recently the author of A Day in the Life of the Brain, is a friend of University of Newcastle Vice Chancellor Caroline McMillen from their days at Oxford, and a visiting fellow.

Her question about tattoos was only partly rhetorical. The baroness doesn’t use social media, but has written extensively, at times controversially, about the effects of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat on people’s attention spans and empathy.

“Tattoos have been around for a long time. Why are they so widespread now?” she said.

“Perhaps if you live in a world that’s so transient and fast, would it not be reassuring to have something that’s permanent and yours?”

The visiting neuroscientist is synonymous with “mind change”, the theory, hotly debated in science, that screen saturation may be changing the human brain.

The brain’s capability to adapt to countless ecological niches, Baroness Greenfield argues, raises questions about how it adapts to habitual internet exposure.

“Mind change” can be compared with climate change in that both are serious and contentious, she says, though the ways social media might affect a person should be “unpacked” individually.

“An older person will have had a more three-dimensional life. They’ll have climbed trees, made up games with their mates, have a framework to deal with things,” Baroness Greenfield said.

“When you’re online you’re not learning eye contact, how to hug, how to interpret tone of voice.”

But the effects of social media immersion even on older people, she said, can be seen in the online trolling of the parents of missing UK toddler Madeleine McCann.

In 2014, 63-year-old Brenda Leyland posted a string of abusive messages about the McCanns under the Twitter handle @sweepyface. 

A Sky News crew confronted Leyland, who was later found dead in a hotel room.

“I don’t think anyone would say to someone’s face, ‘go and kill yourself’,” the baroness said.

“But for some people [who engage in trolling], suddenly they’re important, especially if they say something extreme and it’s unpleasant. Suddenly they’re noticed.”

Baroness Greenfield will deliver a public lecture, “Consciousness: A Scientific Perspective” at 6pm Tuesday at the Watt Street Arc in Newcastle.

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