BOYS from Bishop Wordsworth’s School and Wyvern College in Salisbury have been learning about the dangers to their health of social networking and computer games.

Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, a leading Oxford University neuroscientist told the audience of pre-GCSE pupils that they could risk having poorer social skills and less empathy with other people if they spend excessive screen time on social networking sites and playing video games. Professor Susan Greenfield said: “Information technology can definitely make a positive contribution but children also need to be stimulated by a three-dimensional environment.”

Baroness Greenfield, a former director of the Royal Institution, was giving the 6th Annual Arnold Barks Memorial Christmas Lecture on behalf of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Engineering Technology at the invitation of Bishop Wordsworth’s School.

She gave a similar lecture tailored for an adult audience to members of both institutions and their guests at Salisbury Arts Centre in the evening.

Greenfield pointed out that interacting with 150 “friends” via a screen means nothing compared with the 10 friends that you may have in real life, where you can use normal social networking skills such as eye contact, body language, voice and physical contact.

Also, recent statistics show that between the age of 10 and 11, the average child spends 900 hours in class, 1,280 hours with the family and 1,930 hours in front of a screen; this gets more skewed towards screen time in the mid-teens.

Similarly, the effects of gaming could be that individuals develop fragmented attention and a shorter attention span, together with increasing recklessness and aggression.

This is particularly an issue in teenagers as the prefrontal processing capacity of their brains is not fully developed under the age of 20. The impersonal nature of games also leads to a potential lack of empathy with other humans as characters in games have a less meaningful identity than in a book or real life; for example, they could be killed and then made ‘un-dead’ later. In questioning afterwards, the vast majority of the boys admitted to finding playing video games exciting and just about all of them were using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.