Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

Its important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. Im going to tell you that libraries are important. Im going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. Im going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: Im an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living through my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So Im biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And Im here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And its that change, and that act of reading that Im here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What its good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldnt read. And certainly couldnt read for pleasure.

Its not one to one: you cant say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, its a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if its hard, because someones in trouble and you have to know how its all going to end thats a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, youre on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I dont think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of childrens books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. Ive seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

Enid
No such thing as a bad writer… Enid Blytons Famous Five. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Its tosh. Its snobbery and its foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isnt hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a childs love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian improving literature. Youll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen Kings Carrie, saying if you liked those youll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen Kings name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Youre being someone else, and when you return to your own world, youre going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Youre also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And its this:

The world doesnt have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

Its simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere youve never been. Once youve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while were on the subject, Id like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if its a bad thing. As if escapist fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldnt you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien's
Tolkiens illustration of Bilbos home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a childs love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the childrens library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the childrens library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader nothing less or more which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, weve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. Thats about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

A
Photograph: Alamy

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. Its a community space. Its a place of safety, a haven from the world. Its a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us as readers, as writers, as citizens have obligations. I thought Id try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers and especially writers for children, but all writers have an obligation to our readers: its the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all adults and children, writers and readers have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. Im going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. Its this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world weve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. If you want your children to be intelligent, he said, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

This is an edited version of Neil Gaimans lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agencys annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Are smartphones really making our children sad?

US psychologist Jean Twenge, who has claimed that social media is having a malign affect on the young, answers critics who accuse her of crying wolf

Last week, the childrens commissioner, Anne Longfield, launched a campaign to help parents regulate internet and smartphone use at home. She suggested that the overconsumption of social media was a problem akin to that of junk-food diets. None of us, as parents, would want our children to eat junk food all the time double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal, she said. For those same reasons, we shouldnt want our children to do the same with their online time.

A few days later, former GCHQ spy agency chief Robert Hannigan responded to the campaign. The assumption that time online or in front of a screen is life wasted needs challenging. It is driven by fear, he said. The best thing we can do is to focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity.

This exchange is just one more example of how childrens screentime has become an emotive, contested issue. Last December, more than 40 educationalists, psychologists and scientists signed a letter in the Guardian calling for action on childrens screen-based lifestyles. A few days later, another 40-odd academics described the fears as moral panic and said that any guidelines needed to build on evidence rather than scaremongering.

Faced with these conflicting expert views, how should concerned parents proceed? Into this maelstrom comes the American psychologist Jean Twenge, who has written a book entitled iGen: Why Todays Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

If the books title didnt make her view clear enough, last weekend an excerpt was published in the American magazine the Atlantic with the emotive headline Have smartphones destroyed a generation? It quickly generated differing reactions that were played out on social media these could be broadly characterised as praise from parents and criticism from scientists. In a phone interview and follow-up emails, Twenge explained her conclusions about the downsides of the connected world for teens, and answered some of her critics.

The Atlantic excerpt from your book was headlined Have smartphones destroyed a generation? Is that an accurate reflection of what you think?
Well, keep in mind that I didnt write the headline. Its obviously much more nuanced than that.

So why did you write this book?
Ive been researching generations for a long time now, since I was an undergraduate, almost 25 years. The databases I draw from are large national surveys of high school and college students, and one of adults. In 2013-14 I started to see some really sudden changes and at first I thought maybe these were just blips, but the trends kept going.

Id never seen anything like it in all my years of looking at differences among generations. So I wondered what was going on.

What were these sudden changes for teens?
Loneliness and depressive symptoms started to go up, while happiness and life satisfaction started to go down. The other thing that I really noticed was the accelerated decline in seeing friends in person it falls off a cliff. Its an absolutely stunning pattern Id never seen anything like that. I really started to wonder, what is going on here? What happened around 2011-2012 [the survey data is a year or two behind] that would cause such sudden changes?

And you concluded these changes were being brought about by increased time spent online?
The high-school data detailed how much time teens spend online on social media and games and I noticed how that correlated with some of these indicators in terms of happiness, depression and so on.

I was curious not just what the correlations were between these screen activities, mental health and wellbeing, but what were the links with non-screen activities, like spending time with friends in person, playing sports, going to religious services, doing homework, all these other things that teens do?

And for happiness in particular, the pattern was so stark. Of the non-screen activities that were measured, they all correlated with greater happiness. All the screen activities correlated with lower happiness.

Youve called these post-millennials the iGeneration. What are their characteristics?
Im defining iGen as those born between 1995 and 2012 that latter date could change based on future data. Im reasonably certain about 1995, given the sudden changes in the trends. It also happens that 1995 was the year the internet was commercialised [Amazon launched that year, Yahoo in 1994 and Google in 1996], so if you were born in that year you have not known a time without the internet.

But the introduction of the smartphone, exemplified by the iPhone, which was launched in 2007, is key?
There are a lot of differences some are large, some are subtle, some are sudden and some had been building for a while but if I had to identify what really characterises them, the first influence is the smartphone.

iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence with the smartphone. This has led to many ripple effects for their wellbeing, their social interactions and the way they think about the world.

Psychology
Psychology professor Jean Twenge. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Why are you convinced they are unhappy because of social media, rather than it being a case of the unhappy kids being heavier users of social media?
That is very unlikely to be true because of very good research on that very question. There is one experiment and two longitudinal studies that show the arrow goes from social media to lower wellbeing and not the other way around. For example, an experiment where people
gave up Facebook for a week and had better wellbeing than those who had not.

The other thing to keep in mind is that if you are spending eight hours a day with a screen you have less time to spend interacting with friends and family in person and we know definitively from decades of research that spending time with other people is one of the keys to emotional wellbeing; if youre doing that less, thats a very bad sign.

A professor at Oxford University tweeted that your work is a non-systematic review of sloppy social science as a tool for lazy intergenerational shaming how do you respond?
It is odd to equate documenting teens mental health issues with intergenerational shaming. Im not shaming anyone and the data I analyse is from teens, not older people criticising them.

This comment is especially strange because this researchers best-known paper, about what he calls the Goldilocks theory, shows the same thing I find lower wellbeing after more hours of screen time. Were basically replicating each others research across two different countries, which is usually considered a good thing. So I am confused.

Your arguments also seem to have been drawn on by the conservative right as ammunition for claims that technology is leading to the moral degradation of the young. Are you comfortable about that?
My analyses look at what young people are saying about themselves and how they are feeling, so I dont think this idea of older people love to whine about the young is relevant. I didnt look at what older people have to say about young people. I looked at what young people are saying about their own experiences and their own lives, compared to young people 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Nor is it fair or accurate to characterise this as youth-bashing. Teens are saying they are suffering and documenting that should help them, not hurt them. I wrote the book because I wanted to give a voice to iGen and their experiences, through the 11 million who filled out national surveys, to the 200 plus who answered open-ended questions for me, to the 23 I talked to for up to two hours. It had absolutely nothing to do with older people and their complaints about youth.

Many of us have a nagging feeling that social media is bad for our wellbeing, but we all suffer from a fear of missing out.
Teens feel that very intensely, which is one reason why they are so addicted to their phones. Yet, ironically, the teens who spend more time on social media are actually more likely to report feeling left out.

But is this confined to iGeners? One could go to a childs birthday party where the parents are glued to their smartphones and not talking to each other too.
It is important to consider that while this trend also affects adults, it is particularly worrisome for teens because their brain development is ongoing and adolescence is a crucial time for developing social skills.

You say teens might know the right emoji but in real life might not know the right facial expression.
There is very little research on that question. There is one study that looked at the effects of screens on social skills among 11- to 12-year-olds, half of whom used screens at their normal level and half went to a five-day screen-free camp.

Those who attended the camp improved their social skills reading emotions on faces was what they measured. That makes sense thats the social skill you would expect to suffer if you werent getting much in-person social interaction.

So is it up to regulators or parents to improve the situation? Leaving this problem for parents to fix is a big challenge.
Yes it is. I have three kids and my oldest is 10, but in her class about half have a phone, so many of them are on social media already. Parents have a tough job, because there are temptations on the screen constantly.

What advice would you give parents?
Put off getting your child a phone for as long as possible and, when you do, start with one that doesnt have internet access so they dont have the internet in their pocket all the time.

But when your child says, but all my friends have got one, how do you reply?
Maybe with my parents line If your friends all jumped in the lake, would you do it too? Although at that age the answer is usually yes, which I understand. But you can do social media on a desktop computer for a limited time each day. When we looked at the data, we found that an hour a day of electronic device use doesnt have any negative effects on mental health two hours a day or more is when you get the problems.

The majority of teens are on screens a lot more than that. So if they want to use Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook to keep up with their friends activities, they can do that from a desktop computer.

That sounds hard to enforce.
We need to be more understanding of the effects of smartphones. In many ways, parents are worried about the wrong things theyre worried about their kids driving and going out. They dont worry about their kids sitting by themselves in a room with their phone and they should.

Lots of social media features such as notifications or Snapchats Snapstreak feature are engineered to keep us glued to our phones. Should these types of features be outlawed?
Oh man. Parents can put an app [such as Kidslox or Screentime] on their kids phone to limit the amount of time they spend on it. Do that right away. In terms of the bigger solutions, I think thats above my pay grade to figure out.

Youve been accused by another psychologist of cherry-picking your data. Of ignoring, say, studies that suggest active social media use is associated with positive outcomes such as resilience. Did you collect data to fit a theory?
Its impossible to judge that claim she does not provide citations to these studies. I found a few studies finding no effects or positive effects, but they were all older, before smartphones were on the scene. She says in order to prove smartphones are responsible for these trends we need a large study randomly assigning teens to not use smartphones or use them. If we wait for this kind of study, we will wait for ever that type of study is just about impossible to conduct.

She concludes by saying: My suspicion is that the kids are gonna be OK. However, it is not OK that 50% more teens suffer from major depression now versus just six years ago and three times as many girls aged 12 to 14 take their own lives. It is not OK that more teens say that they are lonely and feel hopeless. It is not OK that teens arent seeing their friends in person as much. If we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the perfect experiment, we are taking a big risk and I for one am not willing to do that.

Are you expecting anyone from Silicon Valley to say: How can we help?
No, but what I think is interesting is many tech-connected people in Silicon Valley restrict their own childrens screen use, so they know. Theyre living off of it but they know its effects. It indicates that pointing out the effects of smartphones doesnt make you a luddite.

iGen: Why Todays Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us by Jean Twenge is published by Simon & Schuster US ($27) on 22 August

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/13/are-smartphones-really-making-our-children-sad

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Stop children bingeing on social media during holidays, parents urged

Childrens commissioner says too much time is spent online as she launches five a day campaign

The childrens commissioner has warned parents that they must intervene to stop their children overusing social media and consuming time online like junk food.

As web use reaches record highs among children, Anne Longfield has attacked the new methods social media giants are using to draw them into spending more time staring at tablets and smartphones. In an interview with the Observer, she said that parents should step up and be proactive in stopping their children from bingeing on the internet during the summer holidays.

Launching a campaign to help parents to regulate their childrens internet use, she said time online should be balanced in the same way that parents regulate their childrens diets. Its something that every parent will talk about especially during school holidays that children are in danger of seeing social media like sweeties, and their online time like junk food, she said.

None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal. For those same reasons we shouldnt want our children to do the same with their online time.

When phones, social media and games make us feel worried, stressed and out of control, it means we havent got the balance right. With your diet, you know that, because you dont feel that good. Its the same with social media.

Her warning comes after a report said that children in all age groups are spending ever-longer periods online. The internet overtook television as the top media pastime for British children last year, according to the media regulator Ofcom. Children aged five to 15 are spending 15 hours a week online.

Last year the time three- and four-year-olds spent online increased from six hours 48 minutes to eight hours 18 minutes a week, while 12- to 15-year-olds now spend more than 20 hours online.

Facebook
Facebook Photograph: Thomas White/Reuters

Longfield said children should be helped to understand that sites encourage them to click on another game or video based on what they had just played. She had been pressuring Facebook to make it easier for children to report things they are worried about or switch off certain features.

She also criticised a feature on Snapchat, known as the Snapstreak, that she said encouraged children to increase their internet use. A streak is created when friends share photos over three consecutive days, but it is destroyed if a day is missed. Longfield compared the feature to a chain letter.

You find children saying to parents that they have 30 people that they have to do every day and if they dont, they drop the streak, and everyone will see, she said. And then does that mean they dont like me any more? Its almost like chain letters. There are children who say they cant not be online, and I think thats really worrying.

I want Facebook and all the other social media companies to be as proactive as they can about creating a good place and a safe place for kids to be. At the same time I want them to stop using the algorithms and the targeting that get kids addicted all those things that we know can be very stressful and very destructive. However, it doesnt mean that parents themselves can step aside and wait for that to happen.

Longfield said it was not helpful to recommend an absolute time limit on how long children should be online. Instead, she is announcing a digital five-a-day campaign, designed to advise parents and children on a healthy online diet. Rather than switching off the wifi, parents should help children to use their internet time to learn new skills, interact positively with friends and be creative.

Were not saying its parents fault, or that they should tell their children what to do, because ultimately this is part of life. All of those kids will have grown up with that being the normality. But we do think there is a role here for parents to step up, to stop waiting for others to come up with the solution, be that government or [social media] companies. We want [children] to feel informed, confident and empowered, and have the confidence to say, no, Im not going to do that. That same confidence we want for children, we want for parents, too.

She said Facebook and other social media giants are not coming forward at quite the speed I would like them to on making it easier to protect children.

There is so much more they could do, she said. These are clever, clever people, who know their industry well, their tech abilities well. They can do things if they want that I dont even know exist, and there are some very good examples of them using their expertise, for example by spotting people who have suicidal tendencies. But they are not doing [enough] yet.

Snapchat and Facebook declined to comment.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/aug/05/children-bingeing-social-media-anne-longfield-childrens-commissioner

What is the Petya ransomware attack, and how can it be stopped?

Companies have been crippled by an attack dubbed Petya, the second major ransomware crime in two months. Olivia Solon answers the key questions

Many organizations in Europe and the US have been crippled by a ransomware attack dubbed Petya. The malicious software has spread through large firms including the advertiser WPP, food company Mondelez, legal firm DLA Piper and Danish shipping and transport firm Maersk, leading to PCs and data being locked up and held for ransom.

Its the second major global ransomware attack in the last two months. In early May, Britains National Health Service (NHS) was among the organizations infected by WannaCry, which used a vulnerability first revealed to the public as part of a leaked stash of NSA-related documents released online in April by a hacker group calling itself the Shadow Brokers.

The WannaCry or WannaCrypt ransomware attack affected more than 230,000 computers in over 150 countries, with the UKs national health service, Spanish phone company Telefnica and German state railways among those hardest hit.

Like WannaCry, Petya spreads rapidly through networks that use Microsoft Windows, but what is it, why is it happening and how can it be stopped?

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that blocks access to a computer or its data and demands money to release it.

How does it work?

When a computer is infected, the ransomware encrypts important documents and files and then demands a ransom, typically in Bitcoin, for a digital key needed to unlock the files. If victims dont have a recent back-up of the files they must either pay the ransom or face losing all of their files.

How does the Petya ransomware work?

The Petya ransomware takes over computers and demands $300, paid in Bitcoin. The malicious software spreads rapidly across an organization once a computer is infected using the EternalBlue vulnerability in Microsoft Windows (Microsoft has released a patch, but not everyone will have installed it) or through two Windows administrative tools. The malware tries one option and if it doesnt work, it tries the next one. It has a better mechanism for spreading itself than WannaCry, said Ryan Kalember from cybersecurity company Proofpoint.

Where did it start?

The attack appears to have been seeded through a software update mechanism built into an accounting program that companies working with the Ukrainian government need to use, according to the Ukrainian Cyber Police. This explains why so many Ukrainian organizations were affected, including government, banks, state power utilities and Kievs airport and metro system. The radiation monitoring system at Chernobyl was also taken offline, forcing employees to use hand-held counters to measure levels at the former nuclear plants exclusion zone.

How far has it spread?

The Petya ransomware has caused serious disruption at large firms in Europe and the US, including the advertising firm WPP, French construction materials company Saint-Gobain and Russian steel and oil firms Evraz and Rosneft. The food company Mondelez, legal firm DLA Piper, Danish shipping and transport firm AP Moller-Maersk and Heritage Valley Health System, which runs hospitals and care facilities in Pittsburgh, also said their systems had been hit by the malware.

Shipping
Shipping company Maersks IT system was impacted by the cyber-attack. Photograph: Mauritz Antin/EPA

So is this just another opportunistic cybercrimnal?

It initially looked like Petya was just another cybercriminal taking advantage of cyberweapons leaked online. However, security experts say that the payment mechanism of the attack seems too amateurish to have been carried out by serious criminals. Firstly, the ransom note includes the same Bitcoin payment address for every victim most ransomware creates a custom address for every victim. Secondly, Petya asks victims to communicate with the attackers via a single email address which has been suspended by the email provider after they discovered what it was being used for. This means that even if someone pays the ransom, they have no way to communicate with the attacker to request the decryption key to unlock their files.

OK, so then who is behind the attack?

Its not clear, but it seems likely it is someone who wants the malware to masquerade as ransomware, while actually just being destructive, particularly to the Ukrainian government. Security researcher Nicholas Weaver told cybersecurity blog Krebs on Security that Petya was a deliberate, malicious, destructive attack or perhaps a test disguised as ransomware.

Ukraine has blamed Russia for previous cyber-attacks, including one on its power grid at the end of 2015 that left part of western Ukraine temporarily without electricity. Russia has denied carrying out cyber-attacks on Ukraine.

What should you do if you are affected by the ransomware?

The ransomware infects computers and then waits for about an hour before rebooting the machine. While the machine is rebooting, you can switch the computer off to prevent the files from being encrypted and try and rescue the files from the machine, as flagged by @HackerFantastic on Twitter.

Hacker Fantastic (@hackerfantastic)

If machine reboots and you see this message, power off immediately! This is the encryption process. If you do not power on, files are fine. pic.twitter.com/IqwzWdlrX6

June 27, 2017

If the system reboots with the ransom note, dont pay the ransom the customer service email address has been shut down so theres no way to get the decryption key to unlock your files anyway. Disconnect your PC from the internet, reformat the hard drive and reinstall your files from a backup. Back up your files regularly and keep your anti-virus software up to date.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/27/petya-ransomware-cyber-attack-who-what-why-how

Popular social media sites ‘harm young people’s mental health’

Poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety

Four of the five most popular forms of social media harm young peoples mental health, with Instagram the most damaging, according to research by two health organisations.

Instagram has the most negative impact on young peoples mental wellbeing, a survey of almost 1,500 14- to 24-year-olds found, and the health groups accused it of deepening young peoples feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

The survey, published on Friday, concluded that Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are also harmful. Among the five only YouTube was judged to have a positive impact.

The four platforms have a negative effect because they can exacerbate childrens and young peoples body image worries, and worsen bullying, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness, the participants said.

The findings follow growing concern among politicians, health bodies, doctors, charities and parents about young people suffering harm as a result of sexting, cyberbullying and social media reinforcing feelings of self-loathing and even the risk of them committing suicide.

Its interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing. Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears that they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people, said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, which undertook the survey with the Young Health Movement.

She demanded tough measures to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young peoples mental health and wellbeing. Social media firms should bring in a pop-up image to warn young people that they have been using it a lot, while Instagram and similar platforms should alert users when photographs of people have been digitally manipulated, Cramer said.

The 1,479 young people surveyed were asked to rate the impact of the five forms of social media on 14 different criteria of health and wellbeing, including their effect on sleep, anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-identity, bullying, body image and the fear of missing out.

Instagram emerged with the most negative score. It rated badly for seven of the 14 measures, particularly its impact on sleep, body image and fear of missing out and also for bullying and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. However, young people cited its upsides too, including self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.

YouTube scored very badly for its impact on sleep but positively in nine of the 14 categories, notably awareness and understanding of other peoples health experience, self-expression, loneliness, depression and emotional support.

However, the leader of the UKs psychiatrists said the findings were too simplistic and unfairly blamed social media for the complex reasons why the mental health of so many young people is suffering.

Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives.. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media good and bad to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.

Young Minds, the charity which Theresa May visited last week on a campaign stop, backed the call for Instagram and other platforms to take further steps to protect young users.

Tom Madders, its director of campaigns and communications, said: Prompting young people about heavy usage and signposting to support they may need, on a platform that they identify with, could help many young people.

However, he also urged caution in how content accessed by young people on social media is perceived. Its also important to recognise that simply protecting young people from particular content types can never be the whole solution. We need to support young people so they understand the risks of how they behave online, and are empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content that slips through filters.

Parents and mental health experts fear that platforms such as Instagram can make young users feel worried and inadequate by facilitating hostile comments about their appearance or reminding them that they have not been invited to, for example, a party many of their peers are attending.

May, who has made childrens mental health one of her priorities, highlighted social medias damaging effects in her shared society speech in January, saying: We know that the use of social media brings additional concerns and challenges. In 2014, just over one in 10 young people said that they had experienced cyberbullying by phone or over the internet.

In February, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, warned social media and technology firms that they could face sanctions, including through legislation, unless they did more to tackle sexting, cyberbullying and the trolling of young users.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/19/popular-social-media-sites-harm-young-peoples-mental-health

‘Accidental hero’ finds kill switch to stop spread of ransomware cyber-attack

Move by @malwaretechblog came too late for Europe and Asia, but people in the US were given more time to develop immunity to the attack

An accidental hero has halted the global spread of the WannaCry ransomware that has wreaked havoc on organizations including the UKs National Health Service (NHS), FedEx and Telefonica.

A cybersecurity researcher tweeting as @malwaretechblog, with the help of Darien Huss from security firm Proofpoint, found and implemented a kill switch in the malicious software that was based on a cyber-weapon stolen from the NSA.

The kill switch was hardcoded into the malware in case the creator wanted to stop it from spreading. This involved a very long nonsensical domain name that the malware makes a request to just as if it was looking up any website and if the request comes back and shows that the domain is live, the kill switch takes effect and the malware stops spreading.

Of course, this relies on the creator of the malware registering the specific domain. In this case, the creator failed to do this. And @malwaretechblog did early this morning (Pacific Time), stopping the rapid proliferation of the ransomware.

They get the accidental hero award of the day, said Proofpoints Ryan Kalember. They didnt realize how much it probably slowed down the spread of this ransomware.

The time that @malwaretechblog registered the domain was too late to help Europe and Asia, where many organizations were affected. But it gave people in the US more time to develop immunity to the attack by patching their systems before they were infected, said Kalember.

The kill switch wont help anyone whose computer is already infected with the ransomware, and and its possible that there are other variances of the malware with different kill switches that will continue to spread.

The malware was made available online on 14 April through a dump by a group called Shadow Brokers, which claimed last year to have stolen a cache of cyber weapons from the National Security Agency (NSA).

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts a users data, then demands payment in exchange for unlocking the data. This attack was caused by a bug called WanaCrypt0r 2.0 or WannaCry, that exploits a vulnerability in Windows. Microsoft released a patch (a software update that fixes the problem) for the flaw in March, but computers that have not installed the security update remain vulnerable.

MalwareTech (@MalwareTechBlog)

I will confess that I was unaware registering the domain would stop the malware until after i registered it, so initially it was accidental.

May 13, 2017

The ransomware demands users pay $300 worth of cryptocurrency Bitcoin to retrieve their files, though it warns that the payment will be raised after a certain amount of time. Translations of the ransom message in 28 languages are included. The malware spreads through email.

This was eminently predictable in lots of ways, said Ryan Kalember from cybersecurity firm Proofpoint. As soon as the Shadow Brokers dump came out everyone [in the security industry] realized that a lot of people wouldnt be able to install a patch, especially if they used an operating system like Windows XP [which many NHS computers still use], for which there is no patch.

Security researchers with Kaspersky Lab have recorded more than 45,000 attacks in 74 countries, including the UK, Russia, Ukraine, India, China, Italy, and Egypt. In Spain, major companies including telecommunications firm Telefnica were infected.

By Friday evening, the ransomware had spread to the United States and South America, though Europe and Russia remained the hardest hit, according to security researchers Malware Hunter Team. The Russian interior ministry says about 1,000 computers have been affected.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/13/accidental-hero-finds-kill-switch-to-stop-spread-of-ransomware-cyber-attack