My Space, your kids

Amidst all the furor about sexual predators on My Space, I fear we are missing the real story about childen on the Internet. Yes, as the FT report this week, our kids are probably slightly vulnerable to pedophiles on popular social networking sites. That's the easy part. But we should stop obsessing over this imaginary epidemic of online perverts and look at the increasingly antisocial behaviour of our own children.

The real issue is the impact that both old and new media is having on the mental and physical life of our kids. The Independent newspaper ran a piece this week entitled "Mental health: Children on the edge" in which it reports behavioural disorders amongst British children under the age of 15 have doubled over the past 30 years.

Among the sharpest increases in behavioural conditions are attention deficit disorder and various kinds of conduct disorders. According to the David Skuse, a professor of brain and behavioural science at the Institute of Child Health in London, the most serious increase have been in "non-aggressive" conduct disorders such as stealing, lying and disobedience.

Whilst one cannot, of course, blame the Internet for the rise of these disorders, I am not confident that the increasing popularity of online media amongst kids will make things any better. Indeed, given the libertarian atmosphere of the Web, the ease of online scams and invented identities, and the mental compulsiveness of the online environment, one could argue that the digital revolution will only compound these behavioural problems.

In an April 2006 speech in the British House of Lords, Dame Susan Greenfield, a Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, spoke about the hallucinatory nature of online culture.:

"I am sure that many parents and grandparents would welcome hard statistics on critical factors such as hours spent in front of a screen, critical age ranges, mitigating influences of other activities, and above all what abilities such as creativity may now be lost and what may now be gained with this new way of processing information compared to those of us educated in the last century. Perhaps the increase in prevalence of hyperactivity might be explained by sustained exposure to an unsupervised IT environment where only short attention spans were ever needed and where the child had no way of practising long periods of paying attention. That is a speculative idea but one that I think should at least be tested....I am not proposing that we become IT Luddites but rather that we could be stumbling into a powerful technology, the impact of which we understand poorly at the moment. The new technologies are also convergent, embracing not only screen culture but drug culture.

Greenfield's connection between attention disorders, hyperactivity and drug culture amongst children is particularly ominous. Aldous Huxley predicted a society of the psychologically dysfunctional more than a century ago. We are now staring this brave new world in the face. And all we seem to want to do is obsess over sexual predators on My Space.