OEB: Dr Sigman, as a psychologist and a biologist, how and when did you become interested in the media and its effects?
Dr Sigman: Three main things triggered my interest. Firstly, travelling to remote cultures around the world and seeing with my own eyes the immediate changes in the behaviour of people and communities after the arrival of electronic media. Teachers, doctors, the police and parents in these cultures all noted a dramatic change. Secondly, becoming a parent myself and noticing how video changed the way my children laughed and other subtle aspects of their behaviour. Lastly, the recent arrival of a new generation of medical studies focusing on child well-being and health, as opposed to studies by those in education, psychology or media studies focusing on technology and children’s interaction with it. These new medical studies had no link whatsoever with any media or technology sources of funding and were very well designed. Moreover, many of them found strong physiological changes associated with the amount of exposure children have to electronic media and the age at which this exposure starts.
OEB: In an article published earlier this year, you discussed the negative biological implications of social networking. Where does the danger lie in Facebook and similar sites?
Dr Sigman: Social networking appears to be actively displacing the time people spend socially interacting with real (non-virtual) friends and even with people in their own house – members of their own family. Furthermore, this displacement is most noticeable in younger and younger children who are now experiencing less social interaction and have fewer social connections during key stages of their physiological, emotional and social development. At the same time, a large number of medical and physiology studies are finding a strong link between this lack of non-virtual social interaction and connection and biological changes in the immune system and genes, along with higher rates of illness, disease and premature death. So, obviously Facebook does not directly cause these changes but social networking is merely a new distraction away from real face-to-face social interaction and this lack of interaction is the health risk, not the act of social networking. If people only spent a short amount of time each day online, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion.
OEB: How are your ideas generally received?
Dr Sigman: Technology journalists try to undermine the credibility of my ideas by claiming they are simply ‘opinions’ of mine with little scientific foundation, even though my work actually involves collating a large number of high quality medical studies and the references are all available. Those in education and media studies arrogantly seem to think they know better and that in some way scientists and medical journals are mistaken or don’t really understand children and technology.
OEB: What advice would you offer users of these internet sites to ensure that they maintain a healthy lifestyle?
Dr Sigman: It’s simple: make sure the ratio of time spent in real life social interaction with real, non-virtual people face-to-face, is higher than time spent in virtual interaction. Make sure most of your life is in the real, not virtual, world. Social networking should simply be a tool, not a life.
OEB: Dr Sigman, thank you very much for your time.
As keynote speaker, Dr Sigman will take part in the ONLINE EDUCA Debate on Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 from 17:45–19:00 and will put forward his views on how the increased use of technology is having an adverse effect on students’ minds.