Friday, 23 October 2015

Technology needs a health warning

This week saw the publication of a new report from The Office of National Statistics looking at children’s use of social media.  Researchers gathered data on screen use and mental wellbeing from over 20,000 children, parents and teachers.  They found a clear association between longer time on social websites and distress, anxiety and depression.  Their conclusion: heavy use of social media is as bad for children as bullying or a troubled home.

These findings echo those of the Institute for Social and Economic Research which published its research earlier this summer.  It also follows the publication of a report from the Strategic Society Centre (SSC) thinktank which called for manufacturers and online social networking sites to consider how young people are affected by their businesses – and potentially redesign their products and services accordingly.

The SSC report provocatively compared today’s technology firms with tobacco companies of the past which would not acknowledge the public health consequences of their business.  It also offered recommendations to help to improve the wellbeing of adolescents and compel technology companies to acknowledge their responsibilities.

Possible solutions include issuing national guidelines on the recommended daily amount of screen time for young people, compulsory school programmes on how social networking and mobile technologies can affect well-being and installing ‘virtual’ usage meters as default settings on social networking sites for all users under 18, so that they are made aware of how long they are spending online.

Children are so trustworthy of modern technologies that they often neglect the fact that it can cause them harm – both directly and indirectly.

According to researcher Dr Cara Booker, “Many of the most effective solutions to our major public health issues have come about when researchers, government and private industry work together. Examples include car safety, including more effective seatbelts, removal of lead from paint, discontinuation of asbestos use and milk pasteurisation. In many of these cases, however, solutions were only sought when the consequences were great and well-established.”

“The evidence regarding use of social media and wellbeing is growing and it is imperative that researchers, government and private industries work together to address the real public health consequences of poor wellbeing in adolescence becoming worse wellbeing in adulthood. This issue is not one that parents alone can tackle; it is one that requires government and private industry to raise awareness of the potential issues with prolonged use of social media for children and adolescents.”

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