Perfect Machines, Perfect People: Messages from Estonia

17/06/2015 14:49 BST | Updated 16/06/2016 10:59 BST

It is increasingly clear that smartphones and apps enable individuals to tailor and personalise their engagement with technology and each device will in this way become specific to its user. Yet the recent debates and discussion at the Estonian Science Agency Conference on young people's use of technology in Tallinn raised a number of questions about what influences individual use. If we now have some understanding of how individuals should use digital technologies, are there wider cultural or national attitudes and beliefs that also influence our use? And if so, what are the consequences of such attitudes and beliefs? Do some countries make better use of the opportunities, yet suffer less risk?

Certainly the way we engage with social media through apps is changing, which gives rise to more cultural and individual variances. However research coming out of Estonia also reveals a surprisingly similar impact of technology on the wellbeing and academic performance of adolescents to that seen here in the UK. But how much should guidance on use vary between countries? Where is the line between 'beneficial' and 'damaging' use of technology? This and many more points were addressed in the closing panel of the conference: 'Perfect Machines, Perfect People'.

The recent Ofcom report on our Media Lives over the past 10 years makes it clear that we no longer use just one social media app at a time, but have an individual palette of different ones that we make use of, as we spend more time online. Nowadays young people may use five or more social media or messaging apps, with a particular use or function for each one, such as Instagram for friends, Facebook for family, anonymous apps for personal expression. Multiple apps may also increase our time online as we move between them, ever more immersed in social media. The growth of social media apps with their varying opportunities allows for this highly personal pattern of use, and perhaps unspoken agreements as to what each app 'is for'. But could this UK pattern of growing use be universal?

The 'EU Kids Online' research across the whole of the EU certainly suggested differences in use between the different member states, and I have become increasingly curious as to what might influence the way in which families and young people engage with technology. So it was with some enthusiasm I accepted an opportunity to explore this with Psychologist Kätlin Konstabel and her mental health practitioner colleagues in Estonia, a country that the 'EU Kids Online' research has previously defined as 'high use, high risk'.

After achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia's government took a strategic, 'tiger-leap' (of faith) to engage at a very high level with the opportunities of digital technologies. The birthplace of 'Skype' and many other innovations demonstrated the nation's industry and commitment to a digital future. But for those working with young people, anxieties were starting to emerge as to whether the impact of extensive use of devices was something to be concerned about. Even more worrying, parents seemed not understand the possible risks, including the risks of excessive use - they simply believed that the 'technology was good'. Health practitioners recognised the need for research evidence to explore the impact of technology, and this has revealed some interesting results.

Konstabel's research correlates scores of young people completing the Internet Addiction Test with their academic achievements. She demonstrates that the 4-5% of teenagers who met the criteria for technology addiction performed far less well academically. The 22% of teenagers who used technologies excessively also fared less well, though they did not have all of the features of a behavioural addiction. It was perhaps then not so surprising to discover that 20% of Estonian 8 year olds said that they could be online for as long as they liked, without parental interference. These results will be interrogated further. They not only echo the findings of earlier research, but also highlight how little we know of what amount of use leads to well-being and achievement, and what amount leads to less achievement. Without such knowledge, it is very hard to guide parents except in cases where the impact of use is manifestly negative. But for Konstabel, this data does point to a wider, negative impact, at least upon attainments in education, which needs serious consideration. And the question remained, why would Estonian parents have a greater tendency to think digital technologies were almost uniformly good?

In Estonia, there is a very present question of whether the post-occupation investment in new technologies is now starting to create difficulties. This is possibly a question that will recur in other fast-growth countries planning for a substantial digital future. Technology offered hope and a way of rebuilding the economy, even nation. But the beliefs and attitudes of a nation, of parents who have placed their trust in 'Perfect Machines' over the last two decades, have perhaps left them less equipped to see some of the pitfalls of 'high use'. To help them consider use in a more balanced way we need to offer parents guidance in the form of research evidence on the impact of using devices. Perhaps then young people can thrive in environments where use of devices is not at the expense of future well-being.

It is insufficient now for us to say that technology is neither good nor bad, but instead that it is simultaneously bad, good and necessary. For Estonia, technology has been a remarkable tool for recovery. However perhaps now there is a need for Estonians to consider that technology is not perfect any more than we might hope ourselves or our nation be transformed into something perfect by our use of digital technologies. Some management of use is helpful. But the dream of perfect machines and perfect people that is so perfect that the losses of the past are erased has to be relinquished.