Neuroscientist Links Autism with Internet Use

Neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield of Oxford University has created a firestorm of controversy by correlating autism with increased computer use amongst children. She contends that the use of social networking Web sites is altering children’s brains, creating shorter attention spans, an expectation of instant gratification and a lack of empathy (i.e. “autistic-like traits").  She proceeds to point out that individuals with autism are particularly drawn to using computers speculating, “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,’” she added.

Her notions are irksome at best. The real threat of social networking sites is not an inducement of “autistic-like traits," but the encouragement of passive aggressive behavior amongst young people who use the medium for cyberbullying purposes, effectively creating a world of real human interaction and an environment where anything goes. Numerous tragedies have unfolded in which teens have committed suicide after their personal lives were invaded and shared exponentially through someone hitting the “send” button on a computer or cell phone. 

But none of this has to do with true autism. And I grow tired of the phrase “lack of empathy” being ascribed in a blanket manner to individuals with autism. We have already heard from Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen that autism is tantamount to evil because evil is a lack of empathy. He attached qualifiers, yet the message remains. 

Granted, people on the autism spectrum have trouble reading social cues and can inadvertently ride roughshod over people’s feelings, not out of malice, but out of obliviousness. But we also know that their affective empathy is so keen as to be overwhelming. It’s not that they don’t feel for others, they feel too much. 

Greenfield backtracked about implying that Internet use induces autism after scorching criticism that it was actually more awareness and better diagnoses that account for the surge in cases (that theory’s too facile as well). But no one zeroed in on her implication that “normal” teens can regretfully become “autistic-like” from computer overexposure. 

Facebook has actually been shown to be a positive for teens with autism, providing a kind of social crib sheet and helping them track names and faces of other kids at their school. I have teen twins on the spectrum and while neither of them use Facebook, they are active members in online communities centered around their special interests. One of them maintains a blog about politics and philosophy that connects him to very heady thinkers, while the other participates in science discussions. They both have incredibly long attention spans when it comes to their special interests.

Yes, there are dangers and drawbacks to the Internet. Yes, it requires an effort to balance on screen time with real world interactions and experiences. But there’s a baby in that bathwater that need not be thrown out.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

26 Responses to Neuroscientist Links Autism with Internet Use

  1. carrol says:

    what a bunch of baloney!!!

  2. emily m says:

    Internet, TV, video games….Everything has an impact on your child’s life but to say it can lead to an increase in Autism is dumb. Autism has become more widely diagnosable. We live in Cyprus in Europe and it has only been the past 10 years or so that Autism has become a recognisable “condition” here.

  3. Susan says:

    Yeah, it’s both dumb and insulting to people on the spectrum.

  4. Daniel Giversen says:

    Honestly it seems, Greenfield have a problem distinguishing between symptoms and causes. It is alright working from a thesis in order to validate it. But it is no good publishing the thesis prematurely – she ought to validate it first. It is a step back to the time, when the mother was accused of inducing autism into the child. It is known that the autismpectrum has physiological causes – and it is known that improper treatment is worsening the childs autistic behaviour. By publishing prematurely, she probaly hoped to get support the thesis in order to finance her research. Even research in the Autismspectrum has become politics and a matter of money. Unfortunately no news there…

  5. Susan says:

    Good point. Follow the money…

    It’s like when the study hit that environmental causes are responsible as well as genetic, and some in the genetics camp got upset, fearing a loss of funding. This premise of her has definitely backfired.

  6. Jennifer says:

    We can argue all day about causes… what we do know is there is a communication issue between and within the two sides of the brain that is at the root of autism. “Brain Sync” issues continue to be in the news when discussing neuro-behavioral disorders. Here is an article that discusses the issue in detail and what can be done to improve brain function.

  7. kyle says:

    @ Jennifer: The Brain Balance system is not an intervention substantiated by a legitimate research design, and “Brain Sync” issues are NOT at the root of autism. I have been reading voraciously in graduate school, in the scholarly research in the field of autism and these are at minimum, conjecture. There is far more false information regarding autism on the Internet, and the truth resides in the scholarly journal articles that are typically only accessed by researchers, scholars and professionals … far less by the professionals, unfortunately. The complexity and the necessary referent information tends to make the articles inaccessible to the general public, yet research universities tend to be liberal with providing this information in manageable ways. The information written by bloggers and people who hopefully mean to do good things, tends to result in false information being disseminated within the public and people believing and propagating toxic information, which is harmful to us who are on the spectrum. Us who are on the spectrum only benefit when people understand the truth. Please help us by advocating an end to conjecture and emotionally driven arguments or positions.

  8. Daniel Giversen says:

    @Kyle: I can only agree. Emotional debate does almost no good – empathy is good, but that is about what emotion have to do in these debates. And a lot of pseudo-knowledge (speculations, yet to be validated thesis etc.) is no help, neither when you live with ASD, nor as a relative – often it is rather damnaging.

    Causes primarily have a function in research – but when sharing information on causes, that in no way fully evidence-based explored it rather tends to give parents guilt – and parents don’t need help feeling guilty of somthing they had no influence at form the beginning. Had they known earlier, they and other care-takers might have handled things different – and the person with ASD might have had a less turbulent childhood – but ASD still could not have been avoided.

    And as far as I’m informed the causes for ASD is pretty complex. We can in no way say, that one particular cause is Alpha and Omega. We know that more than one gene seems to be involved. And according to genetics ASD can be inheritable. Wether these genes result in a greater susceptibilty to medicine, drugs and other chemicals in our environment, thus triggering ASD yet has to be researched. Further research is also needed, wether poisoning in earlier generations ad to these gene-modifications or susceptibility.

    My personal request as a parent to a boy with Asperger is, that researcher do not publish their thesis prematurely without accumulating substancial evidence – in this case it seems that Greenfield’s hidden agenda was funding her research, and of course none of us can know. But in the particular case it is kind of guilt-causing, to suggest that parents not controlling internet use induces ASD. In time, when research has matured, knowledge of causes might help preventing ASD, but at this point it mostly causes unnescessary, non-benefiscial guilt and mass-hysteria.

  9. kyle says:

    @ Daniel: From this limited blog, it isn’t clear that Dr. Greenfield is making a claim that social networking sites on the Internet are *causing* autism. The reading of Moffitt’s words suggests that Greenfield is pointing out that Internet use is “linked to an increased prevalence.” The word “linked” is much like the word “correlated,” which carries a meaning quite different from “caused.” In scholarly research, that distinction is never blurred (except from shoddy research publishing – which I wouldn’t expect from a neuroscientist at Oxford). [This easily missed but profound distinction among words is a specific example of what can make scholarly journal articles "inaccessible" to the general public. We scholars are supposed to know the difference.] Although I am not familiar with this particular source, I would be in agreement that the isolation and distancing created by a large increase in virtual experiences (such as what can be caused by social networking sites on the Internet) could exacerbate autistic-like symptoms in a young individual not yet diagnosed, such as in some/many cases of Asperger’s and increase the likelihood of getting an actual diagnosis. Moffitt did not make the claim that Dr. Greenfield stated that this is a “cause” of autism, anyway.

    Regarding what you mentioned about the “causes” of autism, research is further along than what you have likely been informed. Again, I’d attribute this to the disconnect between the journalists/bloggers and the information published in scientific/scholarly journals. [Journalists and bloggers survive off of attention more so than the facts, unfortunately. The history of the media would seem to support this, and bloggers are under such little scrutiny, yet their presence on the Internet seems to give them undeserved credibility.] But the epigenetic factors [the genetic contribution and the in vivo, environmental contributions (often in utero) acting in conjunction] have been and are being studied. The necessity of the combination seems far more viable and elegant as a model for causality. Specifically, research within the past few years suggest as preliminary findings that the genetic contribution may involve a weakening of the body’s natural ability to remove particular neurotoxins from the body (including mercury). This elegant model suggests that the individual’s environmental exposure to these neurotoxins is also critically important. In other words, the weaker the individual’s natural ability, the lower the exposure to environmental neurotoxins is required to “increase susceptibility” to autism. I would add that there should be additional contributing factors – the intensity and duration of the exposure to neurotoxins above a threshold to cause irreparable damage. The reason these factors need to be considered is because someone with a high ability to remove neurotoxins may receive a sufficiently high enough exposure (to one or more neurotoxins) in a very short period (a few hours, even) of time (like a single instance) whereby irreparable, neurological damage can be done, causing autism. The further details of the initiation and development of neurological pathways are very important, but excluded here for brevity, as they happen beyond the initial cause of the combination of susceptibility and exposure.

    It is also important to recognize that very rarely would a single gene be the sole cause for something like autism or other behavioral or psychological debilitation. That simplistic way of regarding genetics is just a poor, watered-down way of getting information to the public. Geneticists and quality scientists are quite aware of this. What I mean is that it is highly unlikely to be a one-to-one ratio of gene to disorder. We should have stopped thinking that way at least a decade ago, really – considering how long a large enough body of genetic research has been around. [Scientists are stubborn and like to hold on to tradition, perhaps.]

    Now, I’m not saying that this is the only possible causality model for autism that is being explored, just that it is the most elegant (comprehensive, yet simple) model that I have seen – granted that the whole of this model is my synthesis of existing research.

    But from my reading of this blog entry, I would not be willing to believe that Dr. Greenfield’s motive was to fund her research – or that her initial findings, in light of my above thoughts, are unfounded. The “link” is definitely with merit. A “torch and pitchfork” approach to Dr. Greenfield’s work would then be unwarranted. Again, I must caution that I have not read any of Dr. Greenfield’s findings.

    I hope this has been useful.

  10. Daniel Giversen says:

    @Kyle: You’re right. Here I agree with you not to let emotion carry this blog. And I did let meself be carried away with my emotions. ;-)

    Your point about “linking” in connection with triggering patterns of ASD already latent, eventually resulting in a diagnosis makes sence. When parents, caretakers etc. don’t realise that a person has ASD, misunderstood care and raising often result in triggering clearer patterns than nescessary. When you don’t know, but expect a “normal” development, there is no doubt you will make mistakes in parenting. On the other hand we have examples of people intuitively knowing how to help comprehend living on the spectrum in a so-called “normal” world – and thus we see 50-year-old people getting diagnosed only because the circumstances change substantially (e.g. unemployment) or the significant person isn’t there anymore (death, divorce etc.)

    Out of the context:
    I know that normality is all about relativity – at best it is an average of what can be expected in most individuals, when examining a group. An old phrase says: All of us are insane – that means all of have psychological flaws due to genetics and environment – obviously with some people it is more obvious than with other – if we actually find someone truly normal, with no psychological flaws, he/she person would be pretty odd… Personally, I’d rather be a nice original, than a bad copy… ;-)

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  11. Daniel Giversen says:

    Sorry about the ASCII ART failure… ;-)

  12. susan says:

    Sometimes there is a painful disconnect between people studying autism and people living with it in the trenches. I seek to mediate that divide.


  13. kyle says:

    @Susan: Most certainly yes. Sometimes I look at some of the topics researchers try to tackle, like “regarding autistic people and a possible tendency to focus on or around their eyes, especially when engaging in repetitive, simple behaviors” Why don’t some of these scientists just find people with Asperger’s and ask their questions to a whole bunch of them? If they’d have just asked me, I’d have told them the answer. That would have saved a lot of research money and time … and their answer was only speculative, at best. [By the way, the research study I’m referring to identified that autistic people tend to focus on the eye and mouth areas more than any other areas. They were unable to offer any “why”-oriented answers, however.

    As someone with autism and a graduate, research and human development oriented degree, I, myself, help parents, educators, professionals and scientists better understand. I find it to be such a fascinating way to volunteer my time. False and poorly researched information has been the biggest barrier I’ve encountered, so far. Not surprising, though – many disciplines have the same difficulty. For an interesting example, ask a bunch of teachers each to explain how learning happens, but without using the outmoded thinking of Dewey. I have. They couldn’t. The education system no longer shocks me.

  14. kyle says:

    @Daniel – From my experiences, you’re right on the money. Another way to look at it is through the perspective of intellectual functioning. Autistic individuals are more likely to adapt earlier and better when their intellectual functioning is higher. Since people with Asperger’s would then more likely adapt and blend in better, this would help to explain why people with Asperger’s can go many years without getting appropriately diagnosed, often later into adulthood, and some not even getting diagnosed at all. This “ability to hide,” in a manner of speaking, prevents an accurate assessment of the prevalence rate. Although, I suggest that the current prevalence rate should better be regarded in terms of a person’s functional ability, rather than having a necessary association with autism’s causal factors. These may just be semantics to many people, but policy and government don’t always play nice when semantics are involved.

    I’ve never been a fan of associating “parenting” with the word “mistakes” – regardless of diagnosis/no diagnosis and normative/non-normative development in the child. It puts too much pressure on adults, and really, I would argue that a child’s normative development (for each particular child’s circumstances) requires parental “mistakes” for the child to grasp the true meaning of what it means to be human and to develop resilience and successful, appropriate attachment. [However, by "mistakes," I don't include gross errors in judgment or willful negligence.] So a “truly normal parent” (one who doesn’t make mistakes) would probably create an interestingly developing child. I wonder how that would end up.

    I think this is a particularly important point because of what parents of autistic children must endure – the inevitable self-questioning, the cruel social whispers and stares and finger pointing, not to mention the much higher levels of stress. It must be one of the most difficult manifestation of love that I can imagine. And instead of getting certificates of appreciation and medals, they get more bills and societal antipathy. At least the parents, especially the mothers, aren’t getting blamed nearly as much as has happened in the past. Not that this is any consolation, in any fashion. I have yet to meet or hear from a parent who doesn’t want the absolute best for their child(ren) with autism. And that, to me, someone on the spectrum, is the most beautiful thing I’ll ever hear.

  15. Susan says:

    Kyle, I admire what you are doing with your unique perspective! Autism has become such an industry. I hate to see research money squandered on proving the obvious.

    And I love your take on parenting autism, as a mother of twins on the spectrum, it’s lovely to experience such supportive and empathic words.


  16. Veronica says:

    If appears that sometimes evenly highly educated individuals are clueless. Their so-called theories do more harm than good. These degree-toting, higher educated individuals should use their time more wisely; instead of wasting it on dubious theories that are useless at best. When properly monitored by caregivers, computers and safe on-line social networks have had a great deal of positive results for individuals with autism. These communication sources have opened up a whole new world for individuals with autism; that would have otherwise been lost to them. After all, isn’t communication the route to understanding?

  17. Susan says:

    Yes, they do tend to leave out the shades of gray, don’t they?


  18. kyle says:

    Well, properly done research is important, regardless of the findings. Research is also used to rule out what doesn’t contribute or doesn’t contribute significantly. It perhaps is important that we consider the cases of autism that appear to have causes or initiation of the symptoms when those symptoms were not present in perinatal and very early childhood experiences. There are also cases of autism diagnosis, most notably Asperger’s, that occur in adolescence and adulthood. Since we don’t know what the actual cause or causes of autism are, it is important to keep an open mind. The direction of research findings is that it is not likely that genetics is the sole cause, but rather it’s a combination of genetics and environmental contribution, if not solely environmental (where genetics only participates in a supporting but non-causal role). We don’t know all of the possible environmental contributors or when they can occur.

    But I’m not saying that there isn’t “bad” research out there. It’s more likely though that the problem is: bad research designs, poorly implemented studies, and difficulty with the analysis and write-up. Research goes through a rigorous, 3rd party analysis in the proposal stage, by an institutional review board process (IRB) and by the funders of the study, that are there to prevent “bad” research. Independent research organizations aren’t always as effective at preventing bad research, however, and IRB processes don’t always have enough information to be perfect.

    Just some background info …

  19. Susan says:

    I appreciate the value of research and am of the same mind as to the cause(s) of autism. It’s just that sometimes researchers seem to lack empathy as to the persons they are actually studying, (much like they say of their subjects). And some study results presented as earth-shattering are common sense to people who live with autism.


  20. Danoel giversen says:

    I found a bit of information on Greenfield and the book, that is probaly the source of this blog – her main field in neuroscience is Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease:

    Her latest book ‘Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century technology is changing the way we think and feel’ (Penguin 2003), explores human nature, and its potential vulnerability in an age of technology. In addition… which exploits the parallels between the brains of the very young and very old, and how they are all vunerable to technology, chemical manipulation, and disease.

    Has anybody read the book; someone who can summarize her thesis from an objective point?

    In fact this is old news from 2009:

    ‘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… be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.

    She was asked a direct question, and answered it to her best knowledge, and clearly pints to a few casestudies, but no clear evidence at the moment.

    I can’t seem to find newer adresses on the subject form Green – only bloggers discussing it. Until further knowledge is revealed, I believe the case rests. And my suspiscion of a link to funding seems unfounded, too. Sorry, that I contributed to the bonfire without checking things out first…

  21. kyle says:

    I suppose I look at research as an activity that by design adds to a body or bodies of knowledge by using the scientific process. There is much “folk” or “popular” science/psychology information that has existed but is generally excluded from the bodies of knowledge because it hasn’t gone through the rigors of that scientific process. The obvious difficulty with “folk science” (which really is just another way of saying “belief”) is that, like in an advancing game of Jenga, can weaken and topple a structure – such as an intervention. To use a behavioral intervention example, the behavioral adjustment (correction), residential facilities for adjudicated youth are designed around a flawed “belief” system that has not undergone the rigor of scientific testing. It is based on tradition, supported by inappropriate statistical representation, and just generally ignored by an apathetic public who’d rather blame the adolescent and her/his family (and sometimes demographic characteristic) than try to finance finding the truth. Sadly, it is the support from a narrow demographic that has created such a financial frenzy to fund studies over the last couple decades to improve autism interventions. Yet easier to resolve conditions that overwhelmingly impact the impoverished are largely ignored. A sad commentary on the conscience of post-industrialized nations.

    To some people, a few years back, an undeniable “fact” was that this planet was flat. Although we now recognize this as a “false belief,” it heavily impacted several systems that were in place at that time – naming transportation, culture and finance as just a few.

    I’m hoping that people conduct scientific research to separate “potentially false beliefs” (however valid they may seem at the time, to whomever) from “information that is likely to be valid” that can be used to inform a more cogent understanding of the world and more effective interventions.

    Just as the “Brain Balance” intervention seems to be an obviously effective treatment for multiple disorders (including autism) to some [either that, or there is some other motive from a list of motives that includes greed and a P.T. Barnum statement], it fails many if not most of the principles of good scientific inquiry into the intervention and its effectiveness. The Brain Balance founders (hopefully) genuinely “believe” in the effectiveness of their intervention (it seems obvious to them, based on what they’ve done, to date), but that doesn’t mean that it genuinely *is* an effective treatment.

    Yes. The manner of this comment is quite indicative of my autism/Asperger’s traits – factual and direct. But hopefully the perspective is regarded as honest and valid.

    C.f. for a good source on scientific inquiry (only 157 pages of reading material) [it was created by the Committee on Scientific Principles for Education Research] [I studied under one of the committee members - Dr. Robert F. Boruch, a university chair professor in GSE and Wharton at UPenn]:

    Shavelson, R.J. and Towne, L. (eds.) (2002). Scientific Research in Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

  22. kyle says:

    And I wholeheartedly agree with you, Susan, that research can be conducted, evaluated and presented with a lack of empathy. Although I understand that there is a need to be impartial and to conduct the research in a way that all aspects of it can be easily replicated (and the emotions of the different, independent researchers are decidedly not replicatable), we still have an unknown distance to travel before we can get all aspects of research to the way they ought to be.

    In a way, research is similar to the descriptions of autism – so intently focused on the specifics that the subjectivity of the researcher’s perspective is removed, at least temporarily. Since I know how people tend to regard my perspective and approach, I can empathize with researchers. But also since researchers study the condition(s) that affect me, I can also feel hurt, especially when they make mistakes.

    I see both sides, but sometimes have difficulty finding the right system of vocabulary to approach and discuss the personal, subjective aspect.

  23. Susan says:

    Wow Kyle, I really appreciate your thoughtful and illuminating commentary. Thanks for taking the time to share your very special perspective.


  24. kyle says:

    Not a problem. I wish I could do more.

  25. Susan says:

    Just being yourself and generously sharing your perspective is more than enough.

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