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Why it's good that Facebook makes us infantile

Lady Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology, this week declared that Facebook and other social-networking sites are infantilizing the human brain. Why is that so bad?

3 min read

You will, along with many millions of others, likely make an emergency appointment with your psychologist this week.

After all, the words of Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College in Oxford, England, have probably slapped their syllables against your very core. Social-networking sites, she said, like Facebook (it's interesting how Facebook seems to have come to symbolize all social networking), are infantilizing the human mind.

The definition of infantile behavior appears to span such horrific traits as sensationalism, short attention spans, and a need to urinate in the middle of shopping malls. (Perhaps I inadvertently slipped that last one in.)

However, Lady Greenfield's worries are clearly weighing upon her mind. She told the Daily Mail, for example: "My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children, who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span, and who live for the moment."

And she was quoted in the Guardian as telling the United Kingdom's House of Lords (old people in strange costumes who love a heavy lunch and a massage for dessert) that the experiences children have on social-networking sites "are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance."

These two must have been socially networking since the age of 3, right? CC Strikeael

My 4-year-old mind is seized with this response: how does she know that these experiences have no long-term significance? Is her mind so developed, adult, and able to focus for days on end on one subject that she can see into the future and declare all hope lost? Isn't it conceivable that those who network socially come to be more active socially in the real world too?

Well, not according to Lady Greenfield. "Real conversation in real time," she declared, "may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning, and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.

Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability, and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction."

And perhaps they will get to know each other better before they waste each other's time in the deeply meaningful live social chit-chat so beloved by attendees of cocktail parties at the British Embassy. ("Looks like rain today." "Oh, yes. My begonias really need it. Don't yours?")

At the heart of Lady Greenfield's depressing, sensationalist, and stunningly self-centered analysis is this theory: My (adult) way of life is good. Your (childish) way of life is bad.

So why is it that adults so often venerate the honesty of children? Why is it that they delight in children's ability to express their emotions fully, clearly, and without holding a grudge? Why is it that they remind children that their childhood days will be the happiest of their lives?

What, in short, is so screamingly wrong about being infantile?

It's not children who start wars, destroy financial systems, struggle for power, create Ponzi schemes, and release their recently ingested vodka and Coors Light on the sidewalk.

And it certainly isn't children who have created a world of such uncertainty that living for the moment is, quite often, the only philosophy that keeps one from taking a running leap at the nearest cathedral wall and banging one's head as hard as possible against it.

Perhaps Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter and their other brand buddies will, indeed, change the human brain.

But can we really only imagine they will change it for the worse?