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.”

Friday 16 October 2015

What is television teaching our children?

For some time the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been calling for a ban on advertisements for junk food before the watershed or order to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity.

The Chairman of the British Medical Association’s science board, Professor Sheila Hollins, has also criticised the relentless depictions of unhealthy food during children’s programming pointing out “the unconscious way in which promotion can influence children and young people’s choices.”

Despite initial scepticism from the government there seems to be increasing support for the idea.  The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently told the Conservative Party Conference that he would welcome CBeebies telling his “sugar crazy three-year-old daughter” that “chips are bad”.

Earlier this week the Scottish Health Secretary, Shona Robison, added her support agreeing that there is a “very strong argument” for banning pre-9pm junk food averts.

That these concerns are being taken seriously is good news; it is also an admission that television and advertising have an effect on behaviour and attitudes – particularly those of children. 

When he was Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt declined to heed our concerns about the worrying change in the material being broadcast pre-watershed and Ofcom’s failure to regulate adequately.  Indeed it was during his tenure as Culture Secretary that Ofcom’s decision not to find in breach material it described as “being at the very margin of acceptability” effectively re-defined family viewing.

Earlier this month Mr Hunt told his party’s conference that “we don’t like a nanny state except when it comes to children… children are allowed nannies and I think we’re able to be a little bit more draconian”.

It is time that the interests of our children were put before those of commercial providers – whether they be selling food or entertainment.  Our children deserve better.