British headmaster says Harry Potter and other fiction causes brain damage in children.

A British headmaster at the Acorn School in Nailsworth has gotten some attention for claiming that fiction such as Harry Potter can cause mental illness in children:

Can reading “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” and “The Lord of the Rings” cause brain damage in children?

The principal of a British private school says yes.

In a lengthy blog post that went viral over the weekend, Graeme Whiting, the headmaster of the Acorn School in the English town of Nailsworth, claimed that popular fantasy books “can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

Whiting also criticized books by authors George R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett, claiming they “contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children.”

The principal lamented the fact that children can buy these books without a “Special licence.”

“Buying sensational books is like feeding your child with spoons of added sugar,” Whiting wrote, “heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more, which if related to books, fills the bank vaults of those who write un-sensitive books for young children!”

Whiting praised the “old-fashioned values of traditional literature,” offering as examples William Shakespeare, John Keats, Charles Dickens and “Shelley.” (He didn’t specify whether he meant Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of “The Necessity of Atheism,” or Mary Shelley, author of the pioneering horror novel “Frankenstein.”)

The principal ended his post with the lines, “Beware the devil in the text! Choose beauty for your young children!”

I like Shakespeare as much as the next guy (maybe even more, I’ve read all of his plays).  Does Whiting know just how much wanton violence, depicted as perfectly real, is in Shakespeare?  Harry Potter has nothing on ol’ Will.  If you compare body counts between Shakespeare and Rowling, it wouldn’t even be a close contest.

Anyway, I strongly suspect that Whiting didn’t consult any psychological experts before forging his opinion on the matter, so I went ahead and did that.  The first person I pinged was Jeremiah Beene, PhD student at Ole Miss and expert on the psychology of mass murderers, specifically on whether or not violent video games cause violent behaviors (he also is co-host of both the Game Theory Podcast and the God Theory Podcast).  Jeremiah sent me this quote:

This is a classic example of what the lead researcher in the (non)effects of violent media, Chris Ferguson, calls “juvenophobia.” Every generation has a fondness of how they were brought up, with every aspect adored and believed to be critical in their overall development. When they see the disparity of how today’s youth are raised, they instantly place a moral judgment on the issue. The whole thing is a textbook case of confirmation bias. You like who you are, you think you turned out the way you turned out because of x, y, and z, and then you begin seeking out proof for that belief. And, now you just need to dust off that old soapbox so everyone else can hear your oh-so-real moral crisis.

As for science, no. Absolutely not. There are documented cases from Plato’s time that people were terrified of what plays and open readings of poems would do to the youth all the way through books, radio shows, movies, and video games. They just won’t let it rest that humans are very, very good at contextualizing fiction.

Next I messaged my wife who has an undergrad in neuroscience and this coming July will start med school with a focus on either psychiatry or neurology:

There’s a lot of studies that show reading fiction is correlated with higher levels of empathy. Anything by Mar or Oatley in the past 10 years is good.

In 2009 they even accounted for personality type, and afterward the amount of fiction one reads still positively predicted one’s score on an exercise of empathy.

The wife then sent me a link to one such study.  Here’s the abstract (bold mine):

Readers of fiction tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind (Mar et al., Journal of Personality 74: 1047–1078, 2006). We present a study designed to replicate this finding, rule out one possible explanation, and extend the assessment of social outcomes. In order to rule out the role of personality, we first identified Openness as the most consistent correlate. This trait was then statistically controlled for, along with two other important individual differences: the tendency to be drawn into stories and gender. Even after accounting for these variables, fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task. Extending these results, we also found that exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.

So yeah, it turns out the exact opposite is true.  Whiting could have easily known that if he’d just asked people who study the subject (or if he had consulted Dr. Google).

But after reading his blog post, I’m even more coming to think this man doesn’t have the first clue about what he’s saying, thanks in part to stuff like this:

“…as they do not have thinking brains until, at the earliest, fourteen years of age.”

To once again quote my wife: “wtf?”

I’m also starting to think he’s kind of full of himself thanks to passages like this:

It may take the readers of this blog a lifetime to fully appraise what the school represents, and why I chose to give children an education based on moral values and individual teaching in each class of children, which enriches their imagination.

News flash: you don’t enrich the imagination of children by denying them access to some of the greatest imaginations of all time.  Imagination is a skill that grows in contact with other dreamers, a fact that is patently obvious even if you are unaware of the relevant science.

Far from taking a lifetime to fully appraise what the school represents, it took me about a half an hour.  I messaged experts, they messaged back, and now it’s apparent your school stands for babying children to such a degree you deny them much of the wonder you purport to be instilling.

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