Maybe it’s time I stopped forcibly unplugging my 16-year-old from the internet

Teenagers aren’t harmed by spending much of their lives online, research says. So why do I still worry?

Share

Who knows what goes on in the teenage brain? It’s a serious question. Is the mysterious landscape of the mind substantially different for adolescents today than it was when their parents’s generation was growing up?

This is the focus for two important new pieces of research into the neurological effects of new technology. The first, led by Imperial College, London, has recruited 2,500 11-12 year olds whose mobile phone use will be tracked over three years to determine the impact of radio frequency exposure on cognitive development. The second, carried out at University College London, concludes there is little evidence to support the theory that internet use is affecting adolescent brains.

Both fields of research tap into parental anxieties about children negotiating a world we never knew. The telephone in my day – cue lowing of mastodons – was not a personal accessory. It was something which, as a teenager, you asked permission to use (or used, for long comfortable chats about boys and outfits, when your parents were out. When our own mums told us that too many cartoons would addle our brains, it was a comfortable figure of speech. When I forcibly unplug my 16-year-old from his many devices – I have been known to take the internet router to bed with me – it’s mainly because I want him to get a decent night’s sleep, but also because of the lurking, unqualified fear that too much screen time is turning the space between his ears into a flickering, blue-lit void where synapses fizzle and die.

I’m reassured by the latest findings that nothing too dreadful is happening on a cellular level, but it doesn’t stop me thinking that my boy’s time would be better spent reading a book. Is this just the last stand of the Luddite? The effect of too much Huxley read under the covers in my own adolescence?

New technology has always carried a charge of danger. As Kathryn L. Mills, author of the University College report, points out, Socrates saw the humble stylus as the end of civilisation as he knew it. As recorded by Plato in the dialogue Phaedrus, the father of Western philosophy warned that the invention of the pen would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their own memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will damage the use of their own memory within them.”

This mirrors modern parental fears about the internet almost exactly. Brought up to respect the “well-stocked mind”, a kind of internal Rolodex of facts and ideas, we are suspicious of a vast, external database where information materialises and disappears at a click. We worry that knowledge gained in this way is somehow “disposable”, the cognitive equivalent of fast food that furs up the system and leaves no lasting nourishment. We worry about diminished attention span. We worry they’ll get stuck in a 2-D world, unable to negotiate society. We worry most, I suspect, about the sheer, unedited bulk of information streaming though young heads.

If parents, by simple virtue of their date of birth, are at a disadvantage in a wireless universe, they are not powerless. While there’s a question mark over the physiological effects of mobile phones – the new research centres on activity in the frontal and temporal lobes during adolescence when the brain is still developing – it seems sensible to limit the time the device is clamped to a teenager’s head  A restrictive pay-plan is a brutally effective precaution (and probably the reason most kids I know spend far more time on their phones texting and screen-swiping than talking). As far as the internet goes, no amount of research will allay concerns about access to porn etc; this is a problem requiring much subtler parental intervention. Nor does eliminating the “death-ray” theory mean that it’s a brilliant idea for kids’ personal development to spend every waking hour checking their phones for the second, third and fourth opinion that social networks offer.

As far as the internet goes, it’s worth remembering that there are eminent scientists, among them Baroness Susan Greenfield, who remain unconvinced of the benign effect of it on young minds, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as the new findings for UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience suggest, all our fears were misplaced?

If adolescence is about anything, it is about expanding freedoms. If our children are to be the first generation who experience, from birth, full, creative freedom of cyberspace, what a brave new world, stripped of all Huxleian irony, that would be. But I’ll keep hold of the paperbacks, just in case.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Packaging Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for two indivi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A screenshot from the trailer for Hatred  

I love violent video games, but you'll never catch me playing Hatred

Alex White
 

The Top Ten: Words In Christmas Carols That Ought To Be Revived

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas