Saturday, July 16, 2011

Too much internet use 'can damage teenagers' brains'

The usual junky epidemiological reasoning. How do they know that the brain patterns they observe are not what caused kids to become big computer users in the first place? They don't. It could be that people with poor social functioning are the ones most likely to turn to computers

Excessive internet use may cause parts of teenagers’ brains to waste away, a study reveals. Scientists discovered signs of atrophy of grey matter in the brains of heavy internet users that grew worse over time.

This could affect their concentration and memory, as well as their ability to make decisions and set goals. It could also reduce their inhibitions and lead to ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

Researchers took MRI brain scans from 18 university students, aged 19, who spent eight to 13 hours a day playing games online, six days a week.

The students were classified as internet addicts after answering eight questions, including whether they had tried to give up using computers and whether they had lied to family members about the amount of time they spent online.

The researchers compared them with a control group of 18 students who spent fewer than two hours a day on the internet.

One set of MRI images focused on grey matter at the brain’s wrinkled surface, or cortex, where the processing of memory, emotions, speech, sight, hearing and motor control occurs.

Comparing grey matter between the two groups revealed atrophy within several small regions of all the online addicts’ brains. The scans showed that the longer their internet addiction continued, the ‘more serious’ the damage was.

The researchers also found changes in deep-brain tissue called white matter, through which messages pass between different areas of grey matter in the nervous system. These ‘structural abnormalities were probably associated with functional impairments in cognitive control’, they said.

The researchers added that these abnormalities could have made the teenagers more ‘easily internet dependent’, but concluded they ‘were the consequence of IAD (internet addiction disorder)’. ‘Our results suggested long-term internet addiction would result in brain structural alterations,’ they said.

The study, published in the PLoS ONE journal, was carried out by neuroscientists and radiologists at universities and hospitals in China, where 24million youths are estimated to be addicted to the internet.

In Britain, children spend an average of five hours and 20 minutes a day in front of TV or computer screens, according to estimates by the market-research agency Childwise.

Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, described the Chinese research as a ‘wake-up call’. He said: ‘It strikes me as a terrible shame that our society requires photos of brains shrinking in order to take seriously the common-sense assumption that long hours in front of screens is not good for our children’s health.’

Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, described the results as ‘very striking’. [She would] She said: ‘It shows there’s a very clear relationship between the number of years these young people have been addicted to the internet and changes in their brains. ‘We need to do more experiments and we need to invest more money in research and have more studies like this.’

The neuroscientist has previously warned there could be a link between children’s poor attention spans and the use of computers and social-networking websites. She is concerned that not enough attention is being paid to evidence that computer use is changing young people’s brains.

Professor Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at University College London, told the Scientific American journal the techniques used in the small-scale study were rigorous. He said: ‘It goes against intuition, but you don’t need a large sample size. That the results show anything significant at all is very telling.’


Companies bullied into curbing "junk" food ads for kids

The nation's largest food companies say they will cut back on marketing unhealthier foods to children, proposing their own set of advertising standards after rejecting similar guidelines proposed by the federal government.

A coalition of food companies -- including General Mills, ConAgra and Kellogg -- plan to announce the guidelines Thursday. The companies said the effort will vastly change what is advertised, forcing them to curb advertising on one out of three products currently marketed to children.

The new standards, which will allow companies to advertise food and beverage products to children if they meet certain nutritional criteria, could force some brands to change recipes to include less sodium, fat, sugars and calories. While many companies have trumpeted their own efforts to market healthier foods to kids, the agreement would apply the same standards to all of the participating companies.

"Now foods from different companies, such as cereals or canned pastas, will meet the same nutrition criteria, rather than similar but slightly different company-specific criteria," said Elaine Kolish of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a group formed by the industry to address marketing issues.

The group's proposal was pushed along by a government effort to do the same thing. The Federal Trade Commission and several other government agencies were directed by Congress to come up with voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to children, and those were issued earlier this year. The industry balked at that proposal, saying the voluntary standards were too broad and would limit marketing of almost all of the nation's favorite foods, including yogurts, cereals and even some whole wheat breads.

Not surprisingly, the proposal issued by the government is stricter than the standards the companies are pushing for themselves. While the government proposal put broad limits on fats, sugars and sodium that would apply to marketing of all foods, the industry has suggested different guidelines for different foods, saying that is a more practical approach.

The industry guidelines for children's cereals, for example, would allow them to be advertised if they have around 10 grams of sugar a serving, while the formula used by the government would discourage advertising for cereals that have 8 grams of sugars in an equivalent serving. That would mean General Mills would still be able to advertise Honey Nut Cheerios cereal under the industry guidelines but would be discouraged under the voluntary government guidelines.

Another difference between the proposals is where companies are allowed to advertise. While the government guidelines are broad, discouraging advertising of unhealthy foods on packaging and in stores, along with in the media, the industry guidelines would apply to media -- television, radio, print, video games and the Internet -- but not packaging. That means the little bee on the front of the Honey Nut Cheerios box would stay under the industry proposal and go under the government draft.

Even if the industry standards are not as strict as the government guidelines, they still represent progress on the part of the companies. Many companies now advertise any children's cereals that have less than 12 grams of sugar, down from 15 or 16 grams of sugars a decade ago.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the industry for pushing for uniform standards for all of the companies, though she said they do not go far enough. She said she hopes the industry standards are a jumping-off point for negotiations with health advocates and the government. "We are definitely open to negotiating something to make (the voluntary government standards) more workable," she said.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democrat who wrote the language directing the government to develop the standards, said he believes the industry proposal falls short. "With childhood obesity rates rising, now is the time for all parties to rally around those guidelines and begin implementing them, rather than coming up with competing proposals," he said.

That may be a while off. House Republicans have included a provision in next year's Federal Trade Commission budget that would delay the government standards by asking the government to study the potential cost and impact of the guidelines before implementing them.

If they are not delayed by Congress, a final draft of the standards could come by the end of the year.


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