28 Feb 2009

Facebook and Twitter cause autism

Or was it dog shampoo, plastic toys, forward facing strollers, vaccinations, refrigerator mothers, TV, rain, old sperm (though I suppose it depends on what you do with it) or wi-fi?

Susan Greenfield, head of the Royal Institution, raised concerns about social networking sites in a House of Lords debate:
"Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that those within the spectrum of autism are particularly comfortable in the cyber world. The internet has even been linked to sign language, considered as beneficial for autistic people as sign language proved for the deaf. Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can—if there is a true increase—be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering."
But, but Susan...don't you know that people are born autistic, they don't just catch it when they're 14 and setting up a bebo account. Lolz!

I was gratified that Ben Goldacre (cutely) destroyed the argument on Newsnight.

I'd say more about how ridiculous this is but I just found a great post on Stottle's Blog and since it's so much better than anything I could write, anyone interested could pop over there to witness the notion getting a thorough smacking.


Unknown said...

So in your scientific opinion autism is purely genetic?

You disagree with Simon Baron Cohen's twice repeated statement that autism has both genetic and environmental components? That statement was illustrated by the fact that in cases where one identical twin has autism the other does not ALWAYS have autism. Does that not suggest an environmental component?

Sharon McDaid said...

Oh man could you ever just wind your neck in.

"in your scientific opinion..." Lol!

From my non-expert reading of the literature, autism is almost entirely genetic with some environmental factors which mostly affect the child in utero or during birth
Here's an example of twin studies backing mostly genetic explanations.

As you've ignored the point of the post, do you think internet social networking causes autism?

Lisa said...

Oh fer fecks sake!

Sharon, we are seriously missing out on a market here, you gotta come up with some kind of crackpot cause for autism (how about watching multi-cultural, multi-denominational and multi-ability clips on the Tele-tubbies tummies) and I will come up with a cure!

We can write a book and pedal it to all the vulnerable grieving parents wasting their first 12-18 months of diagnosis BLAMING THEMSELVES.

My favourite autism soundbite from a politician in the republic was Olywn Enright who decided that drinking too much causes autism;
I had to ring up and say, No, you have it arseways
Having children with autism and people blaming you for it makes you drink!

Maintain the Rage* Sister!


(Gough Whitlam, Labour Prime Minister of Australia 1975)

Sharon McDaid said...

Lisa, there's a bit on the YouTube clip where Sigman says you can't have a friend whom you haven't met and shaken hands with. Well, I haven't met you - he's so wrong.

I've a better theory for the book though, Thomas the Tank causes autism. For sure ;-)

Aspie Bird said...

It reminds me a bit of the seventies discussion. Working mums were said to be the reason children did not make it during their education.

I shall read Simon Baron Cohen's statement, I think it has more components then just the genetic part.

Anonymous said...

Ben Goldacre rocks. And I'm sure he had a really good argument and all, but I couldn't pay attention cos this guy in Australia poked me on Facebook.

Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

Well Baroness Greenfield to give her, her due title, may be a prominent neuroscientist, but she does not know the half of it does she.

If you figure it, some of us have a natural mutation which makes us more immune to the harmful effects of cyberspace.

Gawd has she never even read Darwin, himself possibly one of our number.

Lookee here in the history of humanity, the hunter gatherers had there shamans, they had there solitary hunters and explorers who widened the tribes horizons. Well not just in prehistoric times, but there were the Daniel Boones and Kit Carson's in the US. The untold mountain men, and back in Siberia the likes of Derzu Uzala as celebrated by Kurosawa.

My brain against yours Baroness, a face off, what you might have in limited knowlege of experimental neuroscience I have over you in syncretic oversight of multidisciplinary pisteis.

And they say we are the narrow minded ones?

Nah Greenfield is not the be all and the end of neuroscience by any means she is just a populist like Pinker.

Probably a little cyberscared too, for to me it is my liberation and my access, and it has expanded my brain and even helped to combat the ill effect of a decline in the absolute number of neurones up there as I interface with computer memory :)

The Biologista said...

Another classic case of speculation dressed up as science (on Greenfield's part) and curiously biased opinion dressed up similarly (on Sigman's part).

Manuel said...

I saw this the other day and nearly fell of my seat.....wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry.......

Anonymous said...

Not much hope for millions of the world population then. If I could part with my daughter for a day I would gladly place her in the hands of one of these expert scientists, with a computer of course, and let them see what autism really is.

CJ xx

Nick McGivney said...

I'm off to close my facetwitterspace account. You people are... beginning to... creep in on me a bit...

I do though respect one aspect of Sigman's argument, not that it's got anything to do with Baroness Saville of Jimmy's gobbledygook: allowing unfettered access to computer time does put a barrier between children and, say, grass. Different argument though, innit.

And Lisa is completely right on one score, Sharon. You're really missing quite a few opportunities in your quest for truth here. If I agree to co-author the book, if Hammie agrees to market it and if you agree to put the words Whisperer/Secrets/Remarkable/Brought Back/Story/One Parent's/Pony and/or dolphin and/or kestrel/Sage/Ancient/Light, in some sort of kerrazee autie order on the cover... We Will Make Millions. Stop dragging your scientific little feet there and let's us make monee!

Sharon McDaid said...

@Aspie Bird, there's still a big industry in mother blaming, damned if you do/don't make various choices about how you live your life.

@eguinan, ooh, I hope it doesn't hurt to be poked from Australia! It's bound to ruin your concentration though.

@Larry, "some of us have a natural mutation which makes us more immune to the harmful effects of cyberspace" - classic!

I have found the internet to be incredibly liberating, informative, social and a great benefit to my sanity as I've struggled with loneliness and ignorance in all sorts of aspects of child rearing.

@Biologista, you've got a knack for summarising these things succinctly and accurately.

@Manuel, yeah, it's just (to apply a new thing I learned today on the cursed net) a case of SSDD, (same shit, different day -nice eh?)

@Crystal Jigsaw, some of them don't seem to have any idea do they? Greenfield though, is speculating about something way apart from her area of expertise.

@Nick, you know that once you're in, you can never leave. Yes, there's something in making sure children get access to a balanced set of activities.

Some interesting book ideas there, but none so outrageous as one I saw mentioned on Facebook today. Frickin' unbelievable!

Anonymous said...

You disagree with Simon Baron Cohen's twice repeated statement that autism has both genetic and environmental components? That statement was illustrated by the fact that in cases where one identical twin has autism the other does not ALWAYS have autism. Does that not suggest an environmental component?

It's true enough that autism is not 100% genetic. But consider the following. Which human characteristic has been found to have 100% concordance in identical twins? I'm mostly asking about behavioral or neurological characteristics, but any physical characteristic will do as well.

Anonymous said...

(To clarify, I'm asking about characteristics that have 100% concordance in identical twins, but 50% or less concordance in siblings - so "having 5 fingers" does not count.)

Anonymous said...

Hello Sharon, thank you for drawing my attention to this interview. Sigman makes a few fair points but, like Baroness Greenfield, seems prone to fear mongering and sensationalism. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the news media like them. I've read a couple of Greenfield's books; she's strong on neurobiology, less so on psychology, ethics and politics, but that doesn't stop her wading in.

Television is one of Sigman's bugbears. He's on secure enough ground discussing its effects, but makes the mistake of conflating television with computers, as he did in the Guardian a couple of years ago by lumping them together as "screen media". No surprise then that he concludes with a familiar fallacy: "social networking is simply the latest form of screen media", which only reveals his ignorance of their huge differences.

Sharon McDaid said...

@Joseph (weeks later!) you make a good point about twins and absolute concordance. If a twin has autism, the MZ twin has 92% chance of also being autistic or having "spectrum symptoms" (in the paper I linked to above). This would seem to strongly strengthen the case for a genetic basis.

@Stan, thanks for your comment. Sigman seems to enjoy being personally involved with the media, both print and screen, despite his worries about it's supposed ill effects. He comes across, from what I've seen and read, as a bluffer. I can hardly believe he responded to Ben Goldacre's statement that this is just conjecture and a one-sided argument, by claiming that there's a debate to be had, and they're having it! Well yes, that doesn't mean their positions are of equal validity. There's a logical fallacy somewhere there but I don't know which one.

Stan said...

Hi Sharon, I thought you and your readers might be interested in a detailed entry posted on Language Log today, about mainstream media misinformation on the supposed dangers of Twitter and co. It isn't directly related to autism, but it does provide a useful critical backdrop to the discussions that took place here, on the BBC, and elsewhere.

Sharon McDaid said...

Hi Stan and thanks for the link. It's a great post and sums up the media attitude to science very well.