Digital Technology — Question for Short Debate
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Labour)
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