Once again the news is full of warnings about the dangers of children spending too much time on screens. New research by Public Health England suggests that greater amounts of screen-time correlates with increased potential for depression and anxiety in young people and was responsible for limiting a child's opportunity for social interaction and physical activity.
Commenting on the report, Vicky Beeching - in the midst of a PhD examining our relationship with technology - pushed back at the slightly hysteric tone of some of the reports and pointed out that what we are experiencing with digital media is the same sort of issue as we have always faced with the tools we use: it's not about the tools themselves, but our ability to sensibly interact with them.
But bluntly (forgive the pun) it's never the knife that stabs, but the hand that is behind it. The knife itself is inert and morally neutral. Only when it is 'activated' by becoming an extension of a human body does it begin to act. But the actions the knife takes are driven solely by the intentions of the body wielding it: for good (chopping vegetables) or bad (chopping people).
In other words, when we are thinking about the effects of technology and tool use we must always look at the environment that drives that use. So the key issue is not 'children who spend excessive time on screens get anxious and depressed,' but 'what are the environmental conditions that are causing children to spend excessive time on screens?' In my experience it's often about the busy parent who sees screen-time as an easy way to distract children whilst they get on with their own stuff, or the child who is already struggling with social interaction who finds an activity that gives positive feedback.
Some have suggested that screens are so attractive because the 'real' world is 'so boring.' However, as Beeching rightly points out, there is no 'pure' real world without technology. Playing a game of football requires a stitched ball, boots, shin-pads, mown grass - the list of tools and technical items goes on. More importantly though, as I pointed out recently in my review of Iron Man 3, humans are tool-makers. It's what we do. But the danger is that we fasten our identities into the tools themselves, rather than in the craft of using and creating with them.
Put another way, an alcoholic is not someone who has a specific problem with drink; the drink is a signifier of a deeper issue. So a child who considers the world outside of their screen-time boring needs to be challenged (along with their parents) about something deeper.
These are complex issues which, as digital tools expand (and potentially contract - disappearing into our bodies in more integrated ways) we will have to come to understand better. Clearly, we all need a balance of activities and interactions; surely no-one would want to hark back to pre-digital age where children couldn't explore using iPads, Google and the myriad learning apps now available.
My hunch as a secondary school teacher is that the immediacy of screen communications impairs our ability to be 'present' and attentive and that this can have an impact on learning and the ability to engage deeply in different kinds of interaction. But we shouldn't blame the tools for that. We need to look to the hands that use them, and the drives that come from within, as well as the environments others have created for us.