British children ‘unhappiest in the world’, say academics

British schoolchildren are among the most stressed, unhappy and “sedentary” in the developed world, academics and authors warned today.

Growing numbers of children are failing to develop properly at a young age because of the toxic pressures of modern life, it was claimed.

The powerful lobby of childcare experts said that many “commercially vulnerable” under-16s were spending too much time sat unsupervised in front of televisions, games consoles and the internet in their bedroom instead of playing outdoors.


Children are also among the most tested in the Western world after being pushed into formal schooling at an increasingly young age and more likely to be exposed to junk food and poor diets than elsewhere, they said.


The comments were made as a new group – the Save Childhood Movement – was launched today in bid to highlight the multiple threats facing young people.

It is being backed by leading figures such as Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University neuroscientist, Sally Goddard-Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-physiological psychology in Chester, Prof Lilian Katz, an expert in early childhood education at Illinois University, and Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Roehampton University.

Wendy Ellyatt, the group’s development director, who is also an author and consultant in early education, said the launch reflected growing concerns over the state of modern childhood.

It will campaign on a range of issues covering education, health, technology and commercial pressures that hamper children’s development, she suggested.

The move follows the publication of a landmark report from Unicef last year that found British parents were trapping their children in a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” by showering them with toys and designer labels instead of spending quality time with them.

This came after a 2007 study by the UN children’s agency ranked Britain bottom out of 21 developed countries for child welfare and third from bottom for educational standards.

Mrs Ellyatt said: “Recent research that shows that children in the UK are some of the most pressurised, unhappy and commercially vulnerable in the world.

“Children are living increasingly sedentary, media-saturated lives and are spending less and less time in contact with the natural world.

“This is having profound consequences for our children’s health, especially with regard to what has been called the ‘modern epidemic’ of obesity.

“With increasing fears about traffic and stranger-danger, children’s freedom to play outside has been profoundly restricted and yet statistically the most dangerous place to be is actually in their own home and bedrooms, especially with so many children now having access to unsupervised digital technology.

“This situation has not been helped by risk-averse policy-making.”

Advisers to the group include Prof Philip Gammage, former dean of education at Nottingham University, Dr Aric Sigman, author and fellow of the Society of Biology, and Sue Palmer, former primary school head and authority of the book Toxic Childhood.

Dr House said children’s lives had become increasingly “distorted” over the last decade.

“As parents and citizens, we all certainly need to take more responsibility for the worlds we create for our children,” he said.

“But politicians and policy-makers also have a grave responsibility to minimise the toxic impact of those aspects of modern technological society over which they have some purchase.

“I have long advocated the appointment of a new Minister for Children with a seat in the Cabinet, whose sole task would be to oversee the likely impact on children of all new government legislation,”

A Department of Education spokesman said: “Many parents are fed up with their children being surrounded by adult images and being targeted aggressively to get the latest ‘must-have’ items.

“Reg Bailey undertook a review on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood and his recommendations have already prompted swift action from industry and regulators.

“We’re making progress and have already set up the Parent Port website to keep the pressure up on businesses so they listen and act on parents’ concerns. We are also working with the Chartered Institute of Marketing to explore what more can be done.”

Mobile phone addiction ruining relationships

Not for nothing is a popular mobile phone brand nicknamed the Crackberry.

Andy Puddicombe, founder of meditation app Headspace says: 'The constant demands of alerts, notifications and social networks can leave us feeling worn out'.

Andy Puddicombe, founder of meditation app Headspace says: ‘The constant demands of alerts, notifications and social networks can leave us feeling worn out’

Researchers have found that constantly checking for messages is an addiction which like other drugs can ruin your personal relationships.


The survey shows that young adults spend up to seven hours a day interacting with communication technology and their behaviour can spill over into a problem.

For some it can become a compulsion and others feel feelings of withdrawal when they are not with their phone.


It is also extremely annoying to those around them.

Is your phone ruining your relationships?
Yes, I’m hopelessly addicted and I know it annoys my friends and familyNo, as long as you have manners this isn’t a problem
 Dr James Roberts, of Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, in Texas, said that the “instant messaging” addiction was driven by “materialism and impulsiveness”.

“Mobile phones are a part of our consumer culture,” Dr Roberts said.

“They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships.”

He said getting hooked on a mobile is similar to other addictions, such as compulsive buying and credit card misuse.

The study is the first to investigate the role materialism plays in mobile phone addiction and the researchers say it is an important consumer value that impacts many decisions shoppers make.

The researchers believe mobile phone use has become so common, it is important to have a better understanding of what drives these types of technological addictions.

Previous studies have revealed young adults, aged 18 to 29, send on average 109.5 texts a day, or approximately 3,200 messages a month.

They receive an additional 113 texts and check their phones 60 times in a typical day and students spend about seven hours a day interacting with information and communication technology.

The study for the Journal of Behavioural Addictions used data from 191 business students and two universities, as mobiles are used by about 90 per cent of students – “serving more than just a utilitarian purpose”, Dr Roberts said.

Mobiles are accessible at any time – including during class – and their functions are forever expanding, making their use or overuse more likely.

And the, researchers say a majority of youngsters claim losing their phone would be “disastrous to their social lives”.

Dr Roberts said: “At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant mobile phone use as merely youthful nonsense – a passing fad.

“But an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cell phone addiction and similar behavioural addictions.”

The addiction has even been given a name – Nomophobia is the term created by British researchers in 2008 to identify people who experience anxiety when they have no access to mobile technology.

A previous study showed that young people are now so addicted to their mobile phones it feels like they have lost a limb when they are without them.

Some said they felt so bereft without their iPhone or Blackberry that it evokes similar feelings to the “phantom limb” syndrome suffered by amputees.

The findings, by the University of Maryland, show the growing reliance that the younger generation has on technology and how it has become central to their lives.

Screen addict parents accused of hypocrisy by their children

Children now worry more about their parents spending too much time on their mobiles or computers than parents worry about their children

Screen addict parents accused of hypocrisy by their children

Almost 70 per cent of children think their parents spent too much time on their mobile phone, iPad or other similar devices, a poll of families found. 

It has become as much a part of modern parenting as getting the children to tidy their room or eat their greens.

But those who order their offspring to switch off televisions, computers or mobile phones because they fear they are becoming addicted might need to take a long hard look at their own screen habits, new research shows.


Almost 70 per cent of children think their parents spent too much time on their mobile phone, iPad or other similar devices, a poll of families found.

More than a third of children worry that their parents struggle to switch off from technology and a quarter of children polled openly accuse them of double standards when it comes to excessive use of mobile devices, televisions and computers.

One in five British children say their parents do not listen to them properly when they are together because they are so busy checking their emails or picking up work messages.

The polling was carried out by Opinion Matters a research agency for the New Forest National Park Authority.

The authority has recently begun providing facilities for visitors to hand in mobile phones, tablets and other devices amid fears that technology is invading family life and making it impossible for people to appreciate nature properly because they never switch off.

Dr Richard Graham, a consultant adolescent psychiatrist and expert in technology addiction at Capio Nightingale Hospital in London said there is growing evidence that children are finding their parents’ preoccupation with communications technology increasingly distressing.

“This is a phenomenon that we are all struggling with, be it young or old,” he said.

“One of the things about the New Forest National Park Authority scheme is that, rather like quiet carriages on trains, we are as a culture going to try to establish opportunities to reconnect and do the things which we know from research improves our well-being and health.”

Four in 10 of the children polled admitted that they sometimes communicate with their parents by text, email or social media even they are in the next room.

The poll found that six in 10 parents worry their children are spending too much time glued to small screens at home but almost seven in 10 children have the same fear for their parents.

Overall 37 per cent of children said they and their parents often spend entire evenings attached to their mobile phones rather than talking.

Pointedly, almost one in 10 of the children polled said they wished their parents would call them from work as often as they call work from home.

It follows a warning from a leading psychologist that parents who constantly fiddle with mobile phones or iPads in front of their children are guilty of “benign neglect”.

Mobile addict parents guilty of child ‘neglect’ warns psychologist

Parents who constantly fiddle with mobile phones or iPads in front of their children are guilty of “benign neglect” and risk driving them to a lifelong dependency on screens, a leading psychologist has warned.

Limiting your child’s screen use

A generation of young people is growing up with a virtual addiction to computers, televisions and smartphones with striking similarities to alcoholism, according to Dr Aric Sigman.

By the time they turn seven, children born today will have spent the equivalent of an entire year of their lives watching some form of small screen, he told an audience of doctors.

The effect could be long-term changes to children’s brain circuitry similar to those in other forms of dependency, he said.

He told the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health annual conference in Glasgow that parents need to “regain control” of their households.

He said: “Passive parenting’ in the face of the new media environment is a form of benign neglect and not in the best interests of children. Parents must regain control of their own households.

Last month a Europe-wide report called for nurseries to ban televisions and called for parents to resist pleas to let children have them in their bedrooms, in a bid to fight obesity among young people.

Dr Sigman, who is both a biologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, drew on research which suggests an association between high levels of screen use and both type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In a presentation on the parallels between screen dependency and alcoholism, he said that on-screen novelty and stimulation caused the release of dopamine, a chemical which plays an important role in the brain’s “reward” system and may be linked to the formation of addictions.

It is estimated that teenagers now spend up to six hours a day in front of some form of small screen.

Children as young as 10 now have access to as many as five different screens at home, often watching two or more at a time, he said in a presentation to the conference and screen dependency.

But parents’ behaviour can play a key role in determining how children will treat technology, he said.

Boys whose parents watch more than four hours a day of television are more than 10 times more likely to develop the same habit as those whose parents do not, he said.

He also singled out parents who maintain high levels of “eye-to-screen contact” at home warning that they are likely to instill similar behaviour in their children

“Technology should be a tool, not a burden or a health risk,” he said.

“Whether children or adults are formally ‘addicted’ to screen technology or not, many of them overuse technology and have developed an unhealthy dependency on it.

“While there are obviously a variety of different factors which may contribute to the development of a dependency – whether it involves substances or activities – the age, frequency, amount of exposure along with the ease of access and the

effects of role modelling and social learning, all strongly increase the risk.

“All of these contribute to a total daily exposure to, or ‘consumption of’, an activity.

“And all are prerequisite factors that contribute to the risk of dependent overuse of technology.”

He called for children under three to have no screen time at all, and no more than an hour a day outside school for those under seven.

Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, said that screens were altering the way children develop basic communication skills.

“Learning to read people’s faces and expressions and body language is absolutely essential in order to develop empathy,” she said.

“The children are simply not getting enough experience of them.”

She said that one midwife had recently told her that it is becoming common for mothers delivering babies to text or post updates to their friends from the delivery room.

“They are not even really present at their children’s births any more,” she said.

Are smartphones making our children mentally ill?

Leading child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans believes easy and constant access to the internet is harming youngsters

Julie Lynn Evans at her home in Hammersmith

Julie Lynn Evans at her home in Hammersmith

Julie Lynn Evans has been a child psychotherapist for 25 years, working in hospitals, schools and with families, and she says she has never been so busy.

“In the 1990s, I would have had one or two attempted suicides a year – mainly teenaged girls taking overdoses, the things that don’t get reported. Now, I could have as many as four a month.”

And it’s not, she notes, simply a question of her reputation as both a practitioner and a writer drawing so many people to the door of her cosy consulting rooms in west London where we meet. “If I try to refer people on, everyone else is choc-a-bloc too. We are all saying the same thing. There has been an explosion in numbers in mental health problems amongst youngsters.”

The Care Minister, Norman Lamb, has this week been promising a “complete overhaul” of the system that deals with these troubled tweens and teens, after a Department of Health report highlighted the negative impact of funding cuts. And the three main party leaders have all made encouraging pre-election noises about putting more resources into mental health services.

Yet, while the down-to-earth Lynn Evans welcomes the prospect of additional funding, this divorced, Canadian-born mother of three grown up children, isn’t convinced that it is the solution to the current crisis.

The floodgates of desperate youngsters opened, she recalls, in 2010. “I saw my work increase by a mad amount and so did others I work with. Suddenly everything got much more dangerous, much more immediate, much more painful.”

Official figures confirm the picture she paints, with emergency admissions to child psychiatric wards doubling in four years, and those young adults hospitalised for self-harm up by 70 per cent in a decade.

“Something is clearly happening,” she says, “because I am seeing the evidence in the numbers of depressive, anorexic, cutting children who come to see me. And it always has something to do with the computer, the Internet and the smartphone.”

Issues such as cyber-bullying are, of course, nothing new, and schools now all strive to develop robust policies to tackle them, but Lynn Evans’ target is both more precise and more general. She is pointing a finger of accusation at the smartphones – “pocket rockets” as she calls them – which are now routinely in the hands of over 80 per cent of secondary school age children. Their arrival has been, she notes, a key change since 2010.

“It’s a simplistic view, but I think it is the ubiquity of broadband and smartphones that has changed the pace and the power and the drama of mental illness in young people.”

With a smartphone – as opposed to an earlier generation of “brick” mobiles that could only be used to keep in touch with worried parents – youngsters can now, she says, “access the internet without adult supervision in parks, on street, wherever they are, and then they can go anywhere. So there are difficult chat rooms, self-harming websites, anorexia websites, pornography, and a whole invisible world of dark places. In real life, we travel with our children. When they are connected via their smartphone to the web, they usually travel alone”.

She quotes one website that has come up in conversations with youngsters in the consulting room. “I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise, but it is where men masturbate in real time while children as young as 12 watch them. So parents think their children are upstairs in their bedrooms with their friends having popcorn and no alcohol, yet this is the sort of thing they are watching. And as they watch, they are saying, ‘this is what sex is’. It is leaving them really distressed.”

Mums and dads who allow young teenagers to have smartphones – and she wouldn’t say yes until they were 14 – must also take a more active role in policing the use of them, she says, however unpopular it will make them with their offspring.

“I think children should have privacy within their own rooms and in their diaries, and I think they should have the Internet, but I don’t think they should have both, certainly not until they have proved they are completely safe and reliable. So, check their browser history, look at their Facebook, Instagram, and then discuss it with them.

“When they are 15, you don’t, for example, let them go to pub, or stay out in the local park at four in morning, yet they’ll get into much less trouble physically there than they will on their smartphones on the internet. I’m not talking about paedophiles preying on them. I’m talking about anorexia sites and sites where they will be bullied.”

That is where the damage is being done to their mental health, she argues. Harmful, too, is the sheer length of exposure to the virtual world via their smartphones that youngsters have now. Her strong advice to parents is to limit access. “Use it like parents used to use TV with their children. ‘You can watch this but you can’t watch that’, and there’s a watershed. We need that kind of discipline.”

How about just banning it altogether? “I believe that parents who don’t allow the Internet can cause as much damaged as parents who allow too much. Their children are not able to work and play and be with the rest of the children in the playground. It’s has to be about balance, not banning.”

Living so much in a virtual world has other negative consequences, she suggests. It gives young users no time to reflect or learn about the consequences of their actions. “So if you are having a WhatsApp chat with your friends, and it all goes very wrong, you can say to them, ‘I wish you were dead’. Now perfectly nice children find themselves saying, ‘I wish you were dead,’ because they haven’t got time to reflect, and then their words go everywhere. Kindness, compassion, ethics, it’s all out of the window when you are in this instantaneous gossip world with no time to think, and no time to learn about having relationships.”

Parents also need to think about what example they set their children by their own attachment to their smartphones. “We know all about the importance of childhood attachment and good healthy childhood relationships with parents. Yet, if you look in the local park, you see children at a very early age not getting the tender, intense love they used to because their parents are always on their smartphones. Put them down, and be with your kids from day one. They’re not getting what they need from us to build up their core sense of self and that can create the problems I see down the line.”

Julie Lynn Evans is, in one way, a reluctant campaigner. She is keen to point out that this isn’t happening to all children, and that there are other potential causes for the current crisis – “results-driven school programmes”, busy parents and the recession are three she quotes, not to mention “organic” mental health such as schizophrenia.

And, she says, she has enough on her plate, dealing daily with the current crisis in adolescent mental health, without getting drawn into a broader argument about how to tackle its root causes. Indeed, she confesses that two weeks ago she was so exhausted that she even contemplated giving up work altogether.

“I was dealing with a young boy who had just jumped out of a car and run into oncoming traffic. Two psychiatrists and I were tearing our hair out trying to find a safe place to put him. We tried for four hours to find him a hospital bed, and there was nowhere for him no hospital bed available. He ended up going went home and we put in nurses 24 hours a day, but not a lot of people are going to be able to do that. At the end of it, I was so tired I thought I can’t go on”.

What makes her continue, though, in a system that even Normal Lamb has called “broken”, is that what she is witnessing frightens her. And she is speaking out because she believes the problem can be fixed.

She is emphatically not anti-internet, but rather anti- the negative side effects of it on our young. “It is battering our children’s brains. They have no times for the goodies in life – kindness, acceptance, conversation, face-to-face, nature, nurture. They need to find a sense of purpose by connecting with other people, not being on the Internet all the time.”

If parents and schools engage with it openly and together, this can be tackled, she urges. “If we can grab what’s going on by the horns, and do something about it, then I am optimistic. I’m not optimistic, though, if we just say it’s the government ‘s fault and we’ve got to have more money.”

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this interview, contact YoungMinds on 0808 802 5544 or Saneline on 08457 678 000

How the Internet is making us stupid

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, asks if the Internet is changing the way we think.

Head with binary data in background

Is the Internet changing the way we think?

Although the world wide web has been around for just 20 years, it is hard to imagine life without it. It has given us instant access to vast amounts of information, and we’re able to stay in touch with friends and colleagues more or less continuously.

But our dependence on the internet has a dark side. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.


I’ve been studying this research for the past three years, in the course of writing my new book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. But my interest in the subject is not just academic. It’s personal. I was inspired to write the book after I realised that I was losing my own capacity for concentration and contemplation. Even when I was away from my computer, my mind seemed hungry for constant stimulation, for quick hits of information. I felt perpetually distracted.


Could my loss of focus be a result of all the time I’ve spent online? In search of an answer to that question, I began to dig into the many psychological, behavioural, and neurological studies that examine how the tools we use to think with — our information technologies — shape our habits of mind.


The picture that emerges is troubling, at least to anyone who values the subtlety, rather than just the speed, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are often less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

The common thread in these disabilities is the division of attention. The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay close attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”, writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts and thinking critically.

When we’re constantly distracted and interrupted, as we tend to be when looking at the screens of our computers and mobile phones, our brains can’t to forge the strong and expansive neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking. Our thoughts become disjointed, our memories weak. The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best 2,000 years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

In an article in Science last year, Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist who runs UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, reviewed dozens of studies on how different media technologies influence our cognitive abilities. Some of the studies indicated that certain computer tasks, like playing video games, increase the speed at which people can shift their focus among icons and other images on screens. Other studies, however, found that such rapid shifts in focus, even if performed adeptly, result in less rigorous and “more automatic” thinking.

In one experiment at a US university, half a class of students was allowed to use internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while the other had to keep their computers shut. Those who browsed the web performed much worse on a subsequent test of how well they retained the lecture’s content. Earlier experiments revealed that as the number of links in an online document goes up, reading comprehension falls, and as more types of information are placed on a screen, we remember less of what we see.

Greenfield concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others”. Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can strengthen the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of rapidly changing signals, like piloting a plane or monitoring a patient during surgery. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

Studies of our behaviour online support this conclusion. German researchers found that web browsers usually spend less than 10 seconds looking at a page. Even people doing academic research online tend to “bounce” rapidly between different documents, rarely reading more than a page or two, according to a University College London study.

Such mental juggling takes a big toll. In a recent experiment at Stanford University, researchers gave various cognitive tests to 49 people who do a lot of media multitasking and 52 people who multitask much less frequently. The heavy multitaskers performed poorly on all the tests. They were more easily distracted, had less control over their attention, and were much less able to distinguish important information from trivia.

The researchers were surprised by the results. They expected the intensive multitaskers to have gained some mental advantages. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, the multitaskers weren’t even good at multitasking. “Everything distracts them,” said Clifford Nass, one of the researchers.

It would be one thing if the ill effects went away as soon as we turned off our computers and mobiles. But they don’t. The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use to find, store and share information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The alterations shape the way we think even when we’re not using the technology.

The pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes our brains are being “massively remodelled” by our ever-intensifying use of the web and related media. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Merzenich, now a professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, conducted a famous series of experiments that revealed how extensively and quickly neural circuits change in response to experience. In a conversation late last year, he said that he was profoundly worried about the cognitive consequences of the constant distractions and interruptions the internet bombards us with. The long-term effect on the quality of our intellectual lives, he said, could be “deadly”.

Not all distractions are bad. As most of us know, if we concentrate too intensively on a tough problem, we can get stuck in a mental rut. But if we let the problem sit unattended for a time, we often return to it with a fresh perspective and a burst of creativity. Research by the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis indicates that such breaks in our attention give our unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem, bringing to bear information and cognitive processes unavailable to conscious deliberation. We usually make better decisions, his experiments reveal, if we shift our attention away from a mental challenge for a time.

But Dijksterhuis’s work also shows that our unconscious thought processes don’t engage with a problem until we’ve clearly and consciously defined the problem. If we don’t have a particular goal in mind, he writes, “unconscious thought does not occur.”

The constant distractedness that the net encourages—the state of being, to borrow a phrase from T S Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction” — is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking. The cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.

What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion. The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which pump out streams of brief messages, has only exacerbated the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. What’s disturbing is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself — our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the net’s treasures, we have been blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.

Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim

 Woman using laptop, technology, internet, internet security

Scientists have discovered that use of internet search engines and databases such as Google and to find information is making people lose their memory

Widespread use of internet search engines and databases such as Google and to find information is making people lose their memory, scientists claim.

Researchers found increasing number of users relied on their computers as a form of “external memory” as frequent use of online information libraries “wired” human brains.

The study, examining the so-called “Google effect”, found people had poor recall of knowledge if they knew where answers to questions were easily found.

The scientists from Columbia University, in New York, found people were increasingly bypassing discussions with friends to use the internet as their main source of information.

Experts blamed the findings, published online in this week in the journal Science, on popular search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and databases such as Wikipedia and, the movie information site founded in Britain.

Prof Betsy Sparrow, who led the study, said such web tools were making information easy to forget and that if people could not find answers immediately it could feel like “going through withdrawal”.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems,” said Prof Sparrow, from Columbia’s psychology department.

“We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and co-workers — and lose if they are out of touch.

“Human memory is adapting to new communications technology.”

She added: “We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.”

Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University who was also involved in the study, added: “Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can off-load some of our memory demands onto machines.”

In the study, titled “Google Effects on Memory: Consequences of having information at our Fingertips,” the researchers undertook four experiments involving student volunteers.

They firstly asked 46 students from the Harvard, the Ivy League university, a series of true-false questions based on trivia such as, ”An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” before showing them words in different colours.

When the words could be linked to the internet, students responded more slowly and admitted they were contemplating searching for the answers on the web.

Another 60 students were then given 40 statements to type on a computer before being told that the information would either be saved or erased.

They discovered that people who believed the data would be saved were less likely to remember.

Another experiment involved 28 undergraduates from Columbia who were asked trivia questions. They were allowed to take notes and the researchers found they too struggled to remember information that would be saved.

Finally a further 34 Columbia students remembered where they stored their information in folders on their computers better than they were able to recall the information itself.

Prof Sparrow admitted it remained unclear what the effects of being so “wired” will be on people over the coming years.

She said the Internet had replaced a person’s circle of friends where people would traditionally look for information.

“(They) did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” she said.

“It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets.

“(It shows) we must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

Prof Sparrow said the idea for the study came as she watched the 1944 movie “Gaslight” one night with her husband and, after wondering who the actress was who played the maid, turned to her computer and Googled it.

The maid was thescreen debut of an 18 year-old Angela Lansbury, the British actress.

For Those With Autism, Eye Contact Isn’t Just Weird, It’s Distressing

For many people with autism, avoiding eye contact isn’t a sign that they don’t care – instead, it’s a response to a deeply uncomfortable sensation.

Researchers have discovered a part of the brain responsible for helping newborns turn towards familiar faces is abnormally activated among those on the autism spectrum, suggesting therapies that force eye contact could inadvertently be inducing anxiety.


Autism spectrum disorder is a term used to describe a variety of conditions that make communicating and socialising a challenge, and is often accompanied by restricted and repetitive behaviours.

A defining characteristic of autism spectrum disorder is a difficulty in making or maintaining eye contact, a behaviour that not only makes social interactions harder, but can lead to miscommunication among cultures where eye contact is taken as a sign of trust and respect.

Those with the condition typically claim it feels “unnatural” or express anxiety over making eye contact, but psychologists have been uncertain if the discomfort is sensory or stems from conflict over the social importance of looking a person in the eye when you communicate.

Previous research suggested the latter, but a team of neurologists from the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US suspected the problem might be over-sensitivity of the parts of the brain responsible for emotional perception.

In part, they were persuaded to search for a neurological cause by reports from those diagnosed with the condition, who claimed looking into the eyes of others was stressful, that it “feels yucky“, or even that “it can actually make my eyes burn or water while doing it.”

Specifically, the researchers looked to a part of the brain called the subcortical system, a variety of structures that integrates information from the outer cortex with the peripheral senses to give rise to movements and other behaviours.

Within this system are pathways that carry visual information from the eyes to parts of the brain that stimulate emotions, and helps newborn babies recognise and turn to familiar faces and influence a range of other social actions.

Previous research on whether this part of the brain was overactive in people with ASD produced mixed results, possibly over confusion whether subjects actually looked at the eyes in the faces used in the studies.

To address this conflict, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure differences in the activation of the parts of the subcortical system responsible for processing faces in 23 adult and child volunteers with ASD and 20 controls.

The participants all received scans as they watched two versions of clips of faces displaying emotions such as fear, anger, or happiness; one normal, and another with a red cross between the eyes to attract attention.

While the face-recognition subcortical region was active in both groups, the areas were highly active in those with ASD when they were forced to focus around the eye region, especially when the faces expressed fear.

“The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern,”says lead researcher Nouchine Hadjikhani.

“Rather, our results show that this behaviour is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.”

The results are interesting, however shouldn’t be overstated. For one thing, the researchers admit that without using eye-tracking technology they couldn’t match the time spent looking at the eyes with the duration of overactivation in the subcortical system.

They also hadn’t matched the subjective claims of uncomfortable sensations made by individuals with their particular brain activity, leaving room for doubt.

But the research is enough to force a rethink on the consequences of coercing children with autism to practice making eye contact.

“The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioural therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them,” says Hadjikhani.

Instead, she suggests slow habituation towards eye contact could be a more appropriate way to handle eye contact in the long run without causing stress.

Understanding that eye contact can induce a physical discomfort and isn’t simply a case of learning to fake it could also help others in society understand the cultural complexities of facial expressions, and accept not everybody is being shifty as they avoid meeting your gaze.

Source:Nature Scientific Reports.

Who Would You Trust More: Your Friend, or a Total Stranger?

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Social trust, the expectation that people will behave with good will and avoid harming others, is a concept that has long mystified both researchers and the general public alike. Trust and cooperation is critical to social success, with neuroscientist Kelly Clancy suggesting that life operates by an undercurrent law of Survival of the Friendliest: evolution is about more than just rivalry, we need relationships. So, how trusting are you? Would you let a stranger borrow your phone in an emergency? Would you lend your friend money if they couldn’t make rent? Have you ever been kinder to a stranger than you are to your sibling?

Many of us have undoubtedly sat in contemplation of what molds our trust in friends and strangers. What makes us inclined to give some people the benefit of the doubt, but occasionally cast a skeptical eye on others. And is there a relationship between how closely we trust people and how well we know them?

In 2016, Markus Freitag and Paul C. Bauer published their study, ‘Personality Traits and the Propensity to Trust Friends and Strangers’ in The Social Science Journal. Substantial research has already been conducted in the realm of social trust, however, Freitag and Bauer contend that endemic methodological shortcomings have consistently yielded inconclusive data.

To avoid these recurring pitfalls and place our understanding of this phenomenon on a more empirically illuminating trajectory, Freitag and Bauer initiated an investigation which examined the role of personality on individuals’ levels of exhibited social trust, rather than merely looking at environmental factors and prior experiences as drivers of social trust.

Deviating from common research designs which plied respondents with unspecific lines of questioning that often clouded the distinction between generalized trust (strangers) and particularized trust (friends, neighbors, co-workers), Freitag and Bauer implemented a process that clearly differentiated classes of trustees, posed realistic and relatable questions, asked respondents to answer using numerical probabilities, and defined personality values using psychology’s “Big Five” personality traits(agreeableness, openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism-emotional stability) which were tailored to individual respondents. Moreover, they erected controls for sex and age.

Through randomly surveying 1,157 Swiss adults via computer-assisted telephone interviews, researchers asked respondents, “Please imagine a probability scale running from 0 to 100%. 0% means that the event will certainly occur. Imagine losing your wallet (with identity card) containing, among other things, 200 Swiss Francs. On a scale from 0 to 100%, how likely is it that the wallet will be returned to you if it is found by… a friend; a stranger that you don’t know?”

So what steers our trust judgements? The study results showed that people often trust total strangers more than they trust their friends. Why? Essentially because we know better. When people know the trustee they base their decisions on their prior history with that person. When people don’t know the trustee, there is no bank of information to draw from, so their judgements are a reflection of their personality traits. The study indicated that of the ‘big five’ personality traits, conscientiousness and openness were important attributes for determining trust in both strangers and friends, but agreeability played a significant role in determining the level of trust invested in strangers. If you’re generally agreeable (defined as believing the best of others and rarely suspecting hidden intents, cooperative, warm, kind, and avoid conflicts) you will assume the best in others. The authors write:

… Our empirical analyses show that the effect sizes of the personality traits are larger for trust in strangers than in the case of trust in friends. Thus, in the absence of information about the trustee, our trust judgments seem to be contingent on our personality… If we agree that personality traits are, to a certain extent, rooted in biology and that certain personality traits affect trust judgments, it also means that trust is also inherited to a certain degree.

Fig.1. Regression coefficients for personality traits on trust in friends and trust in strangers (with and without controls).

Freitag and Bauer did highlight the limitations of their research. They expressly cautioned that the role of education, our networks, and our trust in institutions, matter and cannot be underestimated. Prior studies have clearly indicated that social trust correlates to corruption and crime, which demonstrates that environmental factors do indeed influence levels of social trust. To that end, the authors reiterate that their study is but an initial single nation foray into a grossly underdeveloped facet of social trust research, and that if our understanding of this societal issue is to evolve, theorems and empirical analyses need to further explore and account for personality and biological impacts.


Google ‘makes people think they are smarter than they are’ 

 Woman using laptop, technology, internet, internet security

Searching the internet for information gives people a ‘widely inaccurate’ view of their own intelligence, Yale psychologists believe

Search engines like Google or Yahoo make people think they are smarter than they actually are because they have the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, psychologists at Yale University have found.

Browsing the internet for information gives people a ‘widely inaccurate’ view of their own intelligence and could lead to over-confidence when making decisions, experts warn.

In a series of experiments, participants who had searched for information on the internet believed they were far more knowledgeable about a subject that those who had learned by normal routes, such as reading a book or talking to a tutor. Internet users also believed their brains were sharper.

“The Internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the world’s knowledge at your fingertips,” said lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University.

“It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source. When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet.”

Online searches made students feel smarter 

More than 1,000 students took part in a range of experiments aimed at gauging the psycholgocal impact of searching on the internet.

In one test, the internet group were given a website link which gave the answer to the question ‘how does a zip work’ while a control group were given a print-out of the same information.

When they two groups were quizzed later on an unrelated question – ‘why are cloudy nights warmer?’ the group who had searched online believed they were more knowledgeable even though they were not allowed to look up the correct answer.

Psychology professor Frank Keil, of Yale University, said the study showed that the cognitive effects of “being in search mode” on the internet were so powerful that people still feel smarter even when their online searches did not help.

And the growing use of smartphones may exacerbate the problem because an internet search is always within reach.

“With the internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know,” added Mr Fisher.

The researchers also believe that an inflated sense of personal knowledge also could be dangerous in the political realm or other areas involving high-stakes decisions.

“In cases where decisions have big consequences, it could be important for people to distinguish their own knowledge and not assume they know something when they actually don’t,” Mr Fisher added.

“The Internet is an enormous benefit in countless ways, but there may be some trade-offs that aren’t immediately obvious and this may be one of them.

“Accurate personal knowledge is difficult to achieve, and the Internet may be making that task even harder.”

The study was published by the American Psychological Association. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.


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