Earlier this month 17 leading web firms signed a European agreement to improve the safety of under 18s who use social networking sites — a concern of experts and governments around the world. The European Commission, which brokered the agreement, praised the move saying: "Social networking has enormous potential to flourish in Europe, to help boost our economy and make our society more interactive – as long as children and teenagers have the trust and the right tools to remain safe when making new 'friends' and sharing personal details online.”

The commission specified as dangers cyberbullying (harassing children on internet sites or via mobile messages), grooming (when an adult befriends a child with the intention of committing sexual abuse) and risky behaviour like revealing personal information.

But British peer and leading neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield raised completely different safety issues in addressing the UK House of Lords this week. She criticised the whole phenomenon of social networking, saying it risks infantilising the minds of the upcoming generations, leaving them with short attention spans, hooked on sensationalism, unable to empathise and with a shaky sense of identity. Lady Greenfield wants her government to address these psychological issues.

Among other things Lady Greenfield noted the danger of social interactions and games where there are instant rewards and feedback divorced from long-term consequences. She likened the “pleasure” involved to that derived from other addictive behaviour. And she warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. "Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself."~ Guardian, Feb 24

It is worth reading the fuller report of Lady Greenfield’s remarks on the Guardian website.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet