Scientists say typical internet use doesn't harm teenage brains

Gamescom 2015 in Cologne, Germany. Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

Scientists can’t find any evidence to support the repeated claim that too much internet access can harm the brains of teenagers.

In the UK, there’s a running debate which has made it to the pages of the medical journal the BMJ.

On one side there is Baroness Susan Greenfield, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who claims intense use of the internet and computer games can harm the adolescent brain.

However, scientists at University College London and the University of Oxford say: “Despite calls for her to publish these claims in the peer reviewed scientific literature, where clinical researchers can check how well they are supported by evidence, this has not happened, and the claims have largely been aired in the media.”

Vaughan Bell of University College London and colleagues say there is currently no evidence from neuroscience studies showing that typical internet use harms the adolescent brain.

And they say use of social networking sites “has been found to enhance existing friendships and the quality of relationships, although some individuals benefit more than others”.

Greenfield has also speculated that online interaction might be a trigger for autism or autistic-like traits.

The scientists say that claim has no scientific evidence to support it.

“Her claims are misleading to the public, unhelpful to parents, and potentially stigmatising to people with autism,” they say.

And rather than technology affecting children’s capacities, the scientists suggest the displacement of other activities seems to be an important source of negative effects.

Low levels of physical activity associated with the passive use of digital technology have been linked to obesity and diabetes.

For video games, the displacement of academic activities has been found to account for reduced school performance.

“Nevertheless, we need to recognise that use of the internet and digital technology has cognitive and social benefits and to balance these against any risks,” they write.

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