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Digital Technology

Volume 733: debated on Monday 5 December 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of digital technologies on the mind.

My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this timely debate.

We humans occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet. This is because our brains are superlatively evolved to adapt to our own particular environment: a process known as neuroplasticity. Thanks to their plasticity, the connections between our brain cells will be shaped, strengthened and constantly refined by our individual experiences. It is this personalisation of the physical brain, driven by unique interactions with the external world, that arguably constitutes the biological basis of each individual mind, so what will happen to that mind if the external world changes in unprecedented ways, for example with an all-pervasive digital technology?

A recent survey in the US showed that over half of teenagers aged 13 to 17 spend more than 30 hours a week, outside school, using computers and other web-connected devices. It follows that if the environment is being transformed for so much of the time into a fast paced and highly interactive two-dimensional space that is unprecedented, the brain will adapt accordingly, be it for good or ill, in unprecedented ways. Professor Michael Merzenich, from the University of California, San Francisco, gives a typical neuroscientific perspective. He states:

“There is a massive and unprecedented difference in how their (the digital natives') brains are plastically engaged in life compared with those of average individuals from earlier generations, and there is little question that the operational characteristics of the average modern brain substantially differ”.

The implications of such a sweeping change in mindset—let us call it mind change—must surely extend deep and wide into future education policy. Most obviously, time spent in front of a screen is time not spent doing other things. Indeed, several studies have already documented a link between the recreational use of computers and a decline in school performance. More basic still, though, is to understand in the first place why a screen environment using only sight and sound out-competes three-dimensional activities with all five senses stimulated.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to understand the full impact of the current cyberculture on the emotional and cognitive profile of the 21st century mind. Inevitably, there is no single catch-all soundbite but rather a variety of diverse issues. In the brief time permitted, let us look at just three. First, what is the impact of social networking sites on interpersonal skills and personal identity? Eye contact is a pivotal and sophisticated component of human interaction, as is subconscious monitoring of body language and, most powerful of all, physical contact, yet none of these experiences is available on social networking sites.

It follows that if a young brain with the evolutionary mandate to adapt to the environment is establishing relationships through the more sanitised medium of a screen, the skills that are so essential for empathy may not be acquired as naturally, as well or as quickly as in the past. In line with this prediction, a recent study from Michigan University of 14,000 college students has reported a decline in empathy over the past 30 years, which was particularly marked over the past decade.

Such data in themselves do not, of course, prove a causal link, but just as with smoking and cancer some 50 years ago, epidemiologists could investigate any possible connection. Similarly, the factors should be explored that account for the appeal of the cyberworld for those with already recognised impairments in empathy, typifying autistic spectrum disorders. What about exploring other coincidental trends for a causal link, such as the obsession with the solipsistic read-out of unremarkable moment-by-moment daily routines, for example through Twitter? The psychologist Sherry Turkle, from MIT, has argued persuasively in her recent book Alone Together that the more continuously connected people are in cyberspace, paradoxically the more isolated they actually feel. More worrying still is the tendency to define oneself by the amount of attention garnered online, particularly when excessive bullying, spitefulness and plain cruelty are used to enhance such attention, as with the pernicious trend of “trolling”. Might these phenomena, based as they are on the reassurance of incessant feedback, indicate a less robust sense of identity?

Secondly, on video games, I declare an interest as a patron of the charity Safermedia, and mention that I recently met representatives from the industry who are very keen to discuss the best way forward in the light of growing concerns. For example, neuropsychological studies suggest that frequent and continued playing might lead to enhanced recklessness. Perhaps this is not surprising as it is surely a dangerous lesson to learn that actions do not have consequences and that victims of a shooting can become “undead” the next time around. In addition, data indicate reduced attention spans and even possible addiction. In line with this, significant chemical and even structural changes are being reported in the brains of obsessional gamers that require at the very least wider discussion beyond the scientific community.

No single paper is ever likely to be accepted unanimously as conclusive, but a survey of 136 reports using 381 independent tests and conducted on more than 130,000 participants concluded that video games led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggression and a decrease in prosocial behaviour. Needless to say this “meta-analysis” has itself been criticised, but then such is the iterative nature of evaluating research. This is neither the time nor place for an exhaustive review of the literature, but there should be a means for all these burgeoning scientific findings to be translated on a rolling basis into simple, jargon-free summaries which the non-specialist can readily access, evaluate, and, most importantly, question.

Thirdly, on search engines, can the internet actually improve cognitive skills and learning, as has been argued? The problem here is that efficient information processing is not synonymous with knowledge or understanding—a point well argued and supported by empirical evidence and summarised in, for example, Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. Even the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, has claimed:

“I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that”.

We need to understand much more about the impact of search engines on comprehension skills. I suggest that the difference between processing and isolated fact, and understanding it, is the ability to place that fact into a wider conceptual framework that indeed gives it a meaning. Hence, the famous line from “Macbeth”—“Out, out, brief candle”—is powerful, not because of the literal image of a flickering flame but because the extinction of that flame can be linked to the extinction of life.

Conceptual frameworks can also have a time dimension: hence the meaning of an object or a person can be derived from how that object or person has connected to events and relationships in the past. This is why perhaps the characters in novels are compellingly meaningful in a way that an icon in a computer game is not. When you play a game to rescue the princess, you probably do not care much about her as a person.

Given the plasticity of the human brain, it is not surprising that adaption to a cyberenvironment will also lead to various positives—for example, enhanced performance in a variety of skills that are continuously rehearsed, such as a mental agility similar to that needed in IQ tests or in visuo-motor co-ordination. However, we need urgently to gain a much fuller picture.

I agree that the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—UKCCIS—already brings together more than 170 organisations and individuals from diverse sectors to keep children and young people safe online. However, much more is surely needed than minimising the threats. The time has come to start to maximise the opportunities. Whether it be through UKICCIS or some other co-ordinating organisation, or even a new mind-change initiative, I urge the commissioning of epidemiological studies exploring the significance of various societal and medical trends in relation to a screen-based lifestyle, as well as ring-fencing funds for basic brain research into, for example, the neural mechanisms of addiction and attention, the long-term effects of various screen-based activities on brain structure and function, and the neural processes perhaps underlying deep understanding and creative insight.

The design of truly innovative software that attempted to offset some of the perceived or agreed deficiencies arising from the current digital culture would also be enormously valuable. Most immediately we need more detailed profiles and breakdowns of computer use in the UK, along with surveys of the views and insights of various relevant sectors such as parents, teachers and employers, who until now have had no voice. Then finally, in the light of all this input, this hypothetical body would make recommendations for proactively planning the most effective environment. It might well include a root and branch, paradigm-shifting re-examination of education and subsequent training that best equips the citizen of the 21st century to be personally fulfilled and useful to society.

Currently, we are in an economic crisis, but this would be massively helped by innovative wealth creation, new types of jobs, new and more varied types of training for the growing numbers of unemployed school-leavers and possibilities other than a conventional university education whereby only one in 80 graduates can obtain an appropriate job.

Science and technology are transforming society. We have an extended life span and extended leisure time. Could not baby boomers who currently feel undervalued but have precious entrepreneurial and interpersonal skills be teamed up with the younger generations who are so adept at cutting-edge digital technologies, so that they could develop and commercialise unprecedented goods and services that neither group could conceive or produce unilaterally? Such a scheme could be brokered by the Government and funded by the companies currently dealing only with student loans—along with investment from the private sector. These ventures would be based on a comprehensive appreciation of not just how the future consumer will think and feel but on innovative ways for bringing real added value to them.

Like climate change, this transformational scenario of mind change is complex, unprecedented and controversial. However, unlike climate change, the end point is not one of just damage limitation but rather of ensuring that we deliver to the next generation an environment that can for the first time enable the realisation en masse of each individual’s full potential.

My Lords, I gently remind all noble Lords that this debate is time-limited and that Back-Bench contributions should be limited to five minutes.

My Lords, I am sure that we are all indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for securing this debate, which is of huge long-term importance to our society. I had the pleasure of sitting next to the noble Baroness a year or so ago at a dinner for Autistica, which does such remarkable work in the field of autism, and I know from our conversation how passionately she feels on this subject. We are incredibly lucky that she has introduced this debate.

I should begin by declaring an interest as executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, as it is a company with digital technology at its heart. Perhaps more so than for any other sector of the economy, embracing digital is vital for the future of the media because the ways in which people consume and indeed participate in news in an online world have altered fundamentally in the past decade. News is now an active commodity to which people can contribute rather than just absorb. That is just one aspect of the way that the internet has changed people's lives—especially now that it is so easy to access.

Thanks to the decline in the cost of PCs and vibrant competition in the UK’s broadband market, digital technology is part of the life of at least three-quarters of the population. Of course, it is not just at home that people access digital technology. Smart phones, Androids, BlackBerrys and iPhones are increasingly finding their way into people's pockets, and 27 per cent of adults have one of these devices. Most importantly, 47 per cent of 12 to 15 year-olds have such a device. For them, digital technology is now intimately bound up with their daily lives. A survey in April this year found that this group spends an average of one hour 40 minutes a day online, which I calculate to be 10 per cent of all the time that they are awake. That is why this debate is so important.

The noble Baroness has talked rightly about some of the problems of this sea change in the way we live, but it is worth while reflecting on some of the positive contributions that can take place in a young person's development—and in particular on the impact of social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. These sites—and it is a characteristic of the internet in general—can be valuable in three ways. They are participatory, they force users to learn new interfaces, and they create new channels for social interaction.

A study published this year in Australia, The Benefits of Social Networking, found that these sites can in fact help deliver beneficial educational outcomes as well as facilitating supportive relationships and promoting a sense of belonging and self esteem. Of course it is vital that these sites are used responsibly, and there is a plethora of controls in place to underpin this. However, if that is done, social networking can help the flexibility of the mind and encourage the formation of political, ethical and cultural identities. Young people can also use such sites to access news in a way that they perhaps would not from a printed paper—and that is extremely useful in fostering an interest in current affairs and civics. All that is good for the mind.

The noble Baroness will be aware of a body of work undertaken by Steven Johnson in the United States that tracks the link between the increasing complexity of popular culture, including video games—mentioned by the noble Baroness—powered by new technologies, and the rise of IQ scores in the US over the past several decades, which he attributes to the development of critical thinking skills.

Perhaps even more important for us is the impact of digital technology on literacy. A report from the National Literacy Trust conducted among 3,000 pupils in 2009 found that 56 per cent of young people have a profile on a social networking site, and 25 per cent have their own blog. This compelling research shows that technology is important in offering a range of writing opportunities for young people. In turn, the trust reports a link between blogging and social media activity, writing ability and the enjoyment of writing. Young people who write on a blog are much more likely to enjoy writing in general than young people who do not—by a margin of 57 per cent and 40 per cent. About the same proportion also display greater confidence in their literary ability, believing themselves to be good writers. That was true across all socioeconomic classes.

The same goes for the enjoyment and understanding of music. The launch of the iPod in 2001 changed the way we listen to music and now delivers it digitally to 300 million users worldwide. That brings benefits beyond cultural learning. The Harvard University neurologist Gottfried Schlaug tells us listening to music has a neuroprotective effect which is again of benefit to the young mind. No doubt, there are many other examples.

This is a vital subject because it impacts directly not only on the health and well-being of young people but on the future direction of our society. I readily admit the problems and the unanswered questions, and I very much echo what the noble Baroness said about the importance of more research. However, it is important that this evening we take note of the positive advantages of digital technology and the role that it can perform in training young minds to think creatively and flexibly, in encouraging literacy skills and in fostering a sense of participation in society.

My Lords, we are in debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for taking the opportunity to introduce this debate in your Lordships’ House. As the noble Lord, Lord Black, has indicated, there are very many positive things about cyberspace and the internet.

I, too, want to address some of the concerns to which the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, referred, coming from my background as a psychiatrist, and particularly perhaps as president of ARTIS (Europe) Ltd, a research and risk analysis company which takes an interest in terrorism and politically motivated violence. That is where I came from and how I got interested in this area. It became clear to me that a number of organisations, domestic and international, were using cyberspace as a new modality through which they could conduct their nefarious activities. Of course, we have had land, sea, air and, more recently, space as media or spaces in which to conduct conflict, whether it be terrorism or interstate conflict. However, it is quite extraordinary that for the very first time humanity has created a new space in which activities can take place. This is quite unprecedented.

Of course, we created space in our minds to do things but cyberspace is quite different. This is a space in which it is possible not just to conduct traditional kinds of crime and terrorism—for example, it is well known that a number of organisations use cyberspace to communicate with each other, to pass encrypted messages, to bring groups of people together, and to recruit and train young people in various kinds of terrorist activity—but where the possibility clearly now exists for state and non-state actors to engage in attacks on the very infrastructure of each other’s nations. This is happening at an extraordinary rate. Indeed, in a recent Written Answer, HL12997, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, informed us that the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance reckons that it is costing the United Kingdom alone in the region of £27 billion per annum.

Today, however, we are looking not at the economic but at the mental aspects of this issue. We all know that when we get behind the wheel of a car many of us behave in a different kind of way. Certainly, when we write e-mails we may react rather more emotionally than when we write a thoughtful letter. I see that the noble Lord is particularly careful, knowing that these things can appear in all sorts of places. However, if noble Lords cast their minds back to watching the so-called smart weapons in the shock and awe attacks on Baghdad, they will recall that it was an effort to remember that they were watching not a video game but the destruction of people’s lives. It is very easy to see how one can begin to think of guiltless crimes and victimless crimes. Indeed, if you speak with many of the young people—largely young men—who are involved in these kinds of activities, you will know that they feel that no one really suffers. Credit card crime? Do not worry; it is covered by the banks. However, we know very well that the banks are covered by the insurance companies and the insurance companies charge the banks, that the banks charge ordinary customers, and that, in the end, it is ordinary people who pay for the crimes of these young people. As the noble Baroness said, it is also clear that this affects how people function, and not just their mental functioning but their moral functioning.

It seems to me that in the short time we have at our disposal this evening all we can do is to flag up that this is a wonderful facility, as the noble Lord has done, but also a clear and present danger, as the noble Baroness has described. I trust that your Lordships, whether in the Chamber, in all-party groups or in other ways, will be able to explore this matter more fully. In the mean time, I ask the Minister whether he can indicate how much Her Majesty’s Government are spending on research into the psychology of this area, as distinct from the hardware and software. Psychology is, in the end, the most crucial aspect.

My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lady Greenfield for introducing this topical short debate. She is certainly best qualified to address the challenges for the mind, as well as the opportunities, from digital technologies. There is no doubt that the internet has totally revolutionised the way that we do business, conduct research, find entertainment and even socialise. However, in the face of the non-stop barrage of technology-induced stimulation, a key question on the minds of many parents, education authorities and scientists is how, and whether, this is affecting young brains.

My interest in this subject stems from having managed and run data centres, catering predominantly for the online gaming industry, and also, perhaps just as importantly, from being the father of four children aged between 12 and 16 who constantly, in their spare time, play games on their mobile telephones or on the PlayStation. What amazes me about their plugged-in life is that they end up multitasking, often doing their homework while instant messaging classmates, downloading music, texting their friends, surfing the internet and often conversing on Facebook. While there is a common perception that multitasking saves time, I was surprised to read that there is solid scientific research showing that dividing the brain’s attention between two or more tasks simultaneously has its toll on both performance and time.

The recent Nominet report The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Well-being made it clear that it is important to understand the implications of our online life for our offline working. There is no doubt that with the dramatic changes in digital technologies there has been a scientific and neurological shift in the way that we process information, read, communicate and interact with each other. Our lives are so preoccupied with the effects of digital technologies, whether it be doing our e-mails or embroiling ourselves in the raft of social media applications, that our brains tend to lack much-needed downtime. I have very fond memories of four days that I recently spent on safari with my young children in South Africa, where we had no wireless connection, no internet connection and no television. Apart from the splendours of game viewing, we spent our time reading, exercising and having meals together without distractions. One major task that I have as a father is to get all my four children to sit down together when we have our dinner. What a pleasure it was to have spent that time together, and how necessary this is becoming in a world where digital technologies are causing us to be like hamsters on a treadmill. I do think that it is important for our brains to relax.

There is no doubt that the information explosion brought about by the internet and other modern technologies has had a hugely positive influence on society. The noble Lord, Lord Black, mentioned the impact on literacy. However, I believe that it is important for there to be more guidelines on the efficient and effective use of digital technologies. I have become increasingly focused as a parent on setting firm boundaries for my children, particularly on the time that they spend on the PlayStation. One of my concerns is that many parents are totally unaware of the nature of social media sites and are therefore ill equipped to monitor for potential problems, including cyberbullying, inappropriate content and addictive games. I am not an advocate of focusing on the negative impacts of digital technologies on the brain. Yes, video games tend to be addictive, and, yes, I believe—though there is no empirical scientific evidence—that technologies could physically change our brain and mindset.

I am rapidly running out of time. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, has an important point about promoting youth employment. There is potential for job creation in this exciting era. I also believe that more resources should be directed towards promoting online education. In conclusion, it is important that we embrace the positive impacts; I hope the Minister will elaborate on what Government initiatives are planned to promote more research—possibly through Ofcom—in this important subject.

My Lords, I find myself on the optimistic side of this debate. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, reminded me of reading Socrates’s strictures on writing and the dangers of the spread of that new technology. Much of the activities that the noble Lord attributed to modern terrorists must have been in Socrates’s mind as he was thinking of what they could do now that they had this additional skill.

When I was young, the scare was television. It probably has not done us much good one way or the other: we are probably less healthy than we were; we are probably less good at concentrating and socialising. In that context, the internet, social networks and games are a great advance. To the extent that it has been demonstrated that they do good, they increase people’s performance in short-term memory. It has been shown that in some contexts, heavy users of Facebook are actually better at off-line relationships than people who use it less. There are also research papers that tend in the other direction. The overall picture, however, is one of a revolution which is, though frightening and fast, on average benign. I side with my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood in saying that we are much better now at writing than we were 20 years ago. The world was full of reluctant letter writers when I was 30, and now it is full of keen e-mailers and bloggers. We do much more of it and we read much more of it. The effect on music—the appreciation and spread of music—seems to me to have been strongly positive.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, referred to the plasticity of our brains. That is indeed one of our great characteristics. We must therefore be conscious that any great change, such as what we are experiencing, may have effects of which we ought to be careful. As she said, we ought to be doing research into this, particularly meta-studies to give us a clear picture, because individual studies will always have a scatter of results. We ought to be doing proper meta-studies to really look at the questions raised by the noble Baroness. I hope she will be sufficiently piqued by Ben Goldacre to contribute to that process herself.

My Lords, much of what I thought I would be saying that was original tonight has already been covered in the brief way we have charged around this debate. The noble Lord on the Front Bench seems to be indicating he has a similar problem. The one thing we can be sure about in the new digital world is that it has changed everything, and it has changed it faster than any of us has ever imagined possible, even 15 years ago. The whole level of interaction in a personal way has changed: people no longer natter obsessively on phones; they now exchange e-mails obsessively. As my noble friend Lord Lucas has said, the great demon that was television—indeed, independent television with adverts, which was the great bugbear of my youth—has now been accepted and gone beyond.

However, the noble Baroness and I did a little bit of digging online to discover a speech she made about a year ago which covered similar ground. In it, she pointed out that certain types of activity that offered immediate satisfaction from certain types of video game—particularly done for very long periods of time—affect the way our brains develop. That is not a big surprise to anybody who thinks about it for a second, because the way you use your head changes the way your body operates and learned responses go into muscle and brain. It is just there; it is not a big surprise. Anybody who has ever played a sport knows that you can change the way your reflex patterns go from the way you interact with people.

The problem here is that this may be something which cuts out other types of human interaction. I believe that was roughly what the noble Baroness was coming out with. Again, this is not a surprise. The question is—and my noble friend Lord Lucas pointed out the dangers—how worried should we be? How worried should we be about what it cuts down or what it takes away from us? The interaction is something we must be looking at. The issue of autism flies around anything that goes online now and there is a suggestion that we should worry, but we do not really know. That is one of the issues that come out here.

What are we going to do about it? I am afraid that the Government have either got to do the research themselves or encourage others to discover what is happening here. We are effectively putting out feet into a new pool. The change in activity and the volume of time spent is the great problem; it is not the fact that you actually play a game and destroy the aliens or the advancing hoards from some Narnia coming out from your screen. It is a problem if you spend hours and hours at a very young age doing that. That is the difference. Obsessive behaviour has consequences.

I do not knock the digital: I would not be able to write at all without digital help because I am severely dyslexic, so it has been a huge bonus to me in certain ways, and to many other people. Unless we can actually get at what is happening and take a realistic view of it, we are going to have some problems here. One thing we can be sure of is that new technology will encourage the fear-mongers and the panic buttons to be pressed and the wrong information will come out. We have to encourage people to look at this in a realistic and sensible way. Without that, interesting as the noble Baroness’s thesis is, as much attention will be focused on people who are saying, “I spend 43 hours a week online playing one game and it doesn’t do me any harm and, by the way, what month is it?” We have to have some interaction and study between those who use this and those who do not. Without this, we will merely carry on swapping opinions and not knowledge.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for securing this debate and other noble Lords for their contributions. I am not out of sympathy with the approach that was taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield. The internet has spawned a positive tsunami of innovation and that can be very unsettling as we try to make sense of it all. We now have access to devices, as other noble Lords have said, with immense speed, power and versatility. However, I shall make two observations. The first is rather banal and is that everything we do in one way or another, to some degree or another, reconfigures our synapses and the connections in and the shape of our brains. I am not sure what shape my brain will be in after I sit down following this short speech, but I know it will not be exactly the same as when I stood up.

The second point is a little more serious and follows other noble Lords who have mentioned that as well as the points on the one side, led off by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, there is now increasingly some good research on the effect on children of playing some of these new and highly immersive video games. It finds many very positive effects in terms of teaching and in helping to develop improved problem-solving skills and other associated benefits.

As a parent of teenage children, I agree that there are some issues around potential addiction and overuse, but there is still far from a settled view on the causes or the effects, so we should proceed with care before leaping to any conclusions. In particular, as has been mentioned by a number of speakers, we have to be careful about fanning the flames of moral panic. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, will forgive me if I mention some of the headlines that appeared after she raised some of these points on earlier occasions:

“Is mind change the new Climate Change?”—

that is relatively straightforward, and I think we could answer that one.

“Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”,


“Expert says browsing habits could lead to ‘temporary dementia’”.

Why is it temporary? Finally, and rather more alarmingly:

“Did video games make bankers more reckless?”.

I think the word “more” is the interesting one there. As has been said, we have had these moral panics before. They have been about writing—the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, reminded us about Socrates—and about Shakespeare. Why was the Globe built outside the City walls? It was because there was concern that audiences would be inflamed by the passions in his plays. There were moral panics about penny dreadfuls, early cinema films—which have been rather neatly recreated in Martin Scorsese’s latest film which shows some of the effects of early cinema on audiences—TV and video nasties, and now there is the internet.

To be serious, if the case being made by the noble Baroness is accepted and therefore we should be doing some research, who will do it and how are we going to evaluate it to make sure that we get the best out of it? I take from her introductory speech that at the very least we should be looking at the way in which it is alleged that empathy is declining, which would need some fairly large-scale epidemiological studies, and that video gaming has aspects that lead to aggression, attention deficit and addictive behaviours, so there would need to be some serious research on chemical and structural changes in the brain. If we also follow her line about the impact of search engines in changing the way we seek and store knowledge, we would obviously have to research how we acquire and store knowledge.

This is a very wide and quite intensive research programme so I have some questions for the Minister which I hope he will be able to answer when he responds. First, do departments currently have the capacity to carry out research on this scale? A quick look at the current research projects in DfE does not reveal anything in this area as far as I could see. Given that the budget is about £25 million and that it is likely to be the same next year, I think the Minister should share with us whether resources would be available if such a research programme was to be started. Secondly, by its very nature, this research would have to be collaborative and we would need to seek around Whitehall for partners and others to work on it. It would be interesting to learn from the Minister whether he feels that in the present scenario it would be possible to raise the funds for the sort of projects that might give us the answers we need.

Finally, as I am sure your Lordship's House is aware, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is currently carrying out a review of the role of departmental chief scientific advisers. There was an evidence session a couple of weeks ago. The committee has already established that there are 13 departments, including DfE, which have chief scientific advisers, which is a good thing, but in only two or three of them does the chief scientific adviser operate at board level. Mr Nick Gibb MP, a colleague of the Minister, said in his evidence on 23 November 2011 that Carole Willis, the chief scientific officer of DfE, is not on the board of that department and is not even a director-general. Given that Mr Gibb also said that his Secretary of State is particularly keen on ensuring that they have evidence for their policy, will the Minister explain how any research evidence that might be commissioned in this area would impact on policy given the low status accorded to the department’s CSA?

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, for giving us this chance to reflect on the potential impact of digital technologies on the mind, and to take part in the wider debate for which she calls. As many noble Lords have said, the themes that we have discussed are in some ways not new. My noble friend Lord Lucas mentioned Socrates, who was worried about the invention of writing because he was afraid that people would,

“cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful”.

Well, we all worry about that. He was also concerned that people might,

“be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant”.

That seems to me an extremely strong argument in favour of writing.

At a later stage, people were worried about the development of the printing press, the translation of the Bible into English and the development of the television, as my noble friend Lord Lucas also mentioned. But because these concerns turned out largely to be misplaced, that does not mean that we should today be complacent about the important questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield—I think that there is agreement about that.

Before addressing some of the concerns that have been raised, it is worth reminding ourselves, as other noble Lords already have, of some of the benefits of technology. As we have heard, these benefits are educational, economic and social. So far as education is concerned, we know that technology can support good teaching and help raise standards. It can bring subjects to life, add whole new dimensions to learning and give pupils the chance to have access to the best content, lessons and lectures in the world. We know that the Khan Academy provides 2,700 high-quality micro-tutorials on the web. Anyone, anywhere can access those for free. Computer games developed by Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of maths at Oxford University, are enabling children to engage with complex mathematical problems that, before, people would have said were far too advanced for them. Those are benefits that we should not discount.

We know that, so far as more disadvantaged groups are concerned, having a computer to help with learning at home is associated with improvements of two grades in overall GCSE test scores. We heard earlier that the use of multimedia books in early reading can improve literacy in children. We know that technology can be particularly powerful for pupils with special educational needs, whether that is for those with a visual impairment or dyslexia, as my noble friend Lord Addington reminded us, or some other learning difficulty. The Echoes project is helping primary schoolchildren with autism experiment with difficult social scenarios. That is a positive. I know that concerns have been raised about autism in the context of digital technologies, but that is a good example of how digital technologies can come up with helpful ways forward for children with autism. Speech and language communication disorders would be another obvious area where technology can make a big difference.

We also know that technology is changing education through its potential to create better ways for seeing how children are doing. Teachers can now monitor how each student in a class is doing at the same time, then provide them with the amount of support that they need. Problems can be picked up earlier, and able pupils can be stretched. Technology can help with teacher-training so that teachers can more easily observe other teachers and learn more from them.

We have also heard some of the social benefits—for example, of social networking—from my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood. I think of my 84 year-old mother, fairly recently widowed and living on her own in the countryside, being able to Skype her grandchildren wherever they are.

So far as the economic benefits are concerned, we have heard how technology has transformed the business world and led to the emergence of whole new sectors—the games industry, for example, and the developments in the media industry mentioned by my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, who reminded us of the extraordinary changes that we have witnessed in recent years. These are industries and new sectors where Britain is now a world leader.

What is also astonishing—and this is part of the case made by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield—is the speed with which technology has galloped ahead in such short order. When I left 10 Downing Street in 1994, I had a secretary who did shorthand. During the 1992 general election I had a mobile phone the size of a brick. By the end of 1994, with one exception—and he went on to become the Government’s e-Envoy—none of us working at No. 10 was connected to the internet. That was only the end of 1994, yet today, as we have heard, over a quarter of adults and almost half of teenagers now own a smart phone. Around three-quarters of homes are connected to broadband. Most of us—although not me—shop online. Two-thirds of five to seven year-olds use the internet at home, and 90 per cent of 12 to 15 year-olds. They are on it for quite a long time: five to seven year-olds use the internet for over five hours a week in a typical week; for eight to 11 year-olds, it is over eight hours; and for 12 to 15 year-olds it is over 15 hours.

Then, as we have heard, there are the viewing figures for the telly. Five to seven year-olds are watching an average of nearly 15 hours a week. That rises to over 17 hours a week for 12 to 14 year-olds. The amount of exposure which children and young people are having, whether to the internet or the telly, does raise questions.

If we accept—as I think has broadly been the case—some of the benefits of digital technologies, we also recognise that there are concerns. The noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, raised a number of them: the risk of shorter attention spans; the loss of the ability to see an argument or take on information in a broader context; and substituting virtual relationships for real ones, increasing the risk of atomisation.

My noble friend Lord Alderdice also raised the important issue of cyberspace being used for terror activity and state sabotage and the effect that it could have on moral decisions distancing people from the consequences of their actions. We could also add: the lack of downtime and relaxation, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, reminded us; the risk of sexual exploitation of children; and—a point which has not been raised today—the risks of obesity caused by a sedentary life.

If those are some of the potential downsides, what evidence do we have? A number of points have fairly been raised about the research base of the evidence that exists. As I fear is often the case, the evidence that I have had drawn to my attention seems largely mixed and does not enable me to draw clear and decisive conclusions of the sort that noble Lords would find helpful. We know that in 2007 the previous Government asked Professor Tanya Byron to look at the risks that children face from the internet and video games. Her review also touched on some of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, today. Professor Byron found that the impact of technology on children depends on a number of biological, psychological and social factors, which meant that it was difficult to generalise about the impact of technology on particular individuals because each person’s background and context varies considerably. It seems that a sensible perspective on children and technology would need to take account of differences in age, experience and stage of development.

Earlier this year, Dr Paul Howard-Jones of Bristol University, who was involved in the Nominet research to which reference has been made, carried out a review of what the field of neuroscience has found regarding the implications of using interactive technologies for young people—for their brains, behaviours and attitudes. He highlighted the need to understand the specific uses of technologies in a specific context rather than to label particular technologies, or technology, as good or bad. He found, for example, that existing forms of online communication for supporting existing friendships are generally beneficial for their users. He also found that some technology-based training can improve working memory and that others can provide mental stimulation that slows cognitive decline. Some types of gaming can improve visual processing and motor response skills. However, the review by Dr Howard-Jones identified three potential risks for children—namely, violent video games; excessive use of technology having negative physical or mental impact or interfering with daily life; and the use of games and some other technology at night leading to sleep problems.

The Government agree it is important that children should access only content that is appropriate to their age and that they should not be exposed to violent video games, which is why we support the statutory use of pan-European games information age ratings that should help parents to supervise their children’s use of technology and video games. About four in five parents already put in place rules on internet use, and I have learnt that the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, does so in relation to his children’s use of gaming.

It seems that excessive video game-playing can be an issue for some people and that it could have an adverse impact on attention levels and well-being or even interfere with people’s daily lives. We know that there is some evidence that playing violent video games is associated with aggression, although the link to actual violence is less clear, which reinforces the importance of age restriction. I think it is true that parents and teachers will also want to be careful that certain technologies are not providing a distraction to children focusing on the task in hand, but I have not been shown robust evidence that technology use does cause issues like ADHD.

We have not seen research that shows there is evidence that the prevalent use of digital communications by teenagers is directly damaging brains. Findings suggest that using the internet to maintain relationships can improve social connectedness and well-being, but we need to be aware of the risks from cyberbullying and inappropriate content. We are working with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the 170 other organisations mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, to provide advice and guidance to parents, schools and young people about how to stay safe online and work with industry to improve their products and services.

We are grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue. I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made during this debate. It is clear that extensive use of technology is having an impact on us all, and I think there is broad recognition that while technology brings us many opportunities and benefits that we could not have imagined only a few years ago, we should be aware of potential risks and issues, especially around e-safety or excessive use unbalancing people’s lives.

On the important question of research raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, and my noble friend Lord Addington and others, we are not aware of an extensive evidence base on negative impact from the sensible and proportionate use of technology. This may be an area that the UK research councils will wish to explore, and I am told that they have these issues firmly on their agenda. We will look at any new research that is published and approach it with an open mind, and I will take on board the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, about research.

It is easy to see the benefits of new technology, but the noble Baroness is right to remind us that we must not be blind slaves to the power of novelty. As in so many things, there is a balance to be struck; and just as any technological revolution can lead to great progress, so it always also leads to unexpected problems, to which we must indeed always be alert.

Sitting suspended.