Two reports on technology use have been released this week: one suggesting that too much screen time is harming children, the other suggesting that adults lack essential digital skills. If they are right, these reports effectively call for policy makers to impose maximum IT usage guidelines for adolescents and minimum usage guidelines for adults.
That is a big 'if', however.
The first report, "Screened Out", from think tank The Strategic Society Centre warns about the reduced well-being of some UK adolescents who use screen based media and social networking sites. The report calls for official government guidelines to limit the use of screen based media among children. Further, it suggests the problem is so bad that tech companies risk becoming the 'new tobacco'. The report warns...
"There is enough evidence for policymakers and companies to be worried about the effects these technologies and social media have on the wellbeing of some young people. The big technology companies of today must actively engage with this issue, or risk being like the tobacco companies of yesteryear who wouldn't acknowledge the public health consequences of their business."
A few days later and Go On - the UK's digital skills charity - is receiving coverage warning about the socio-economic detriment caused by the UK's lack of basic digital skills. Apparently 23% of UK adults lack at least one of five basic digital skills. This report warns...
"One in five people are unable to do simple things like send a Facebook message, apply for a job online, pay bills with an app, or even check what day the bins are collected on their local council website. For some, it means not knowing how to communicate with family and friends online, leading to loneliness, isolation or ill-health."
It seems that sci-fi writer William Gibson was right when he said, 'the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed'.
I attended the launch seminar for 'Screened Out' and was underwhelmed by the evidence provided to support their case. Research in this area is tricky. It is particularly tricky to prove causation, in this case between screen based media use and reduced well-being, rather than simple correlation.
Whilst I have some sympathy for the complexity of the research task, in some important regards their research was highly partial. There seemed to be an a priori assumption of detriment being associated with screen based media, with the research specifically designed to find it. For example, they neglected to point out that adolescents who had no access to screen based media also suffered from reduced well-being, a finding that was only revealed when I asked about this group in the Q&A. Surely a balanced presentation would have included this point?
Further, they only looked at the impact on well-being of time spent using screen based media. The strongest link was found among those adolescents using screen based media for more than four hours on a school day. This should not surprise anyone. It is probably not a great idea for children to do more than four hours of any extra-curricular activity on a school day - including sport or reading books!
My own research - including definitively proving a link between IT usage and enhanced wellbeing in adults, especially those that are disadvantaged - gives me much more sympathy with the Get On research findings. It also suggests that the real social detriment is not to those who have too much screen time, but to those who lack sufficient access to screen based media. It is these groups which should receive the most urgent attention of policy makers.
Research like that presented in 'Screened Out' is part of a long tradition of technophobia that goes back to the introduction of the movies, the talkies, television and the computer. Arguably it goes back even further: Socrates in 370BC pondered the implications of the introduction of the written word, fearing it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories".
Though a long tradition it is one that has been proved wrong so many times and perhaps represents a greater threat to our future well-being than the technologies of which it is so fearful.