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Great responsibility for young people's wellbeing lies with tech companies

This is the key message delivered by the Strategic Society Centre report ‘Screened Out’, which was published last week.

Trust is a hugely valuable asset to businesses. It is not a fluffy, inessential ‘nice to have. It is clearly reflected on the bottom line. VW have, of course found this out very recently. But a string of other industries have also had to face up to their responsibilities, from tobacco and gambling, to alcohol and the food industries. Regrettably these sectors have largely been forced to do so by regulators. But what about the tech companies? The hardware and software firms that produce products and services designed to keep us glued to screens? In the technology gold rush, have responsibilities been ignored by companies? The implications are as yet not fully known, but the evidence is building. There is an opportunity for enlightened companies to address this issue now before trust is badly damaged and profits negatively affected. If they don’t do so, it won’t be long before policy makers make them.

James Lloyd, Director of the Strategic Society Centre (SSC) in London, at the launch event of the Screened Out report stated that policy makers and technology industry heads alike need to be equipping young people with the skills to positively navigate the digital world sooner rather than later.

The evidence for this call to act was presented in detail by Dr Cara Brooker from the University of Essex. This was based on the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, which since 2009 has gained continuous insights from 4,899 young people aged 11-15. It shows us that use of social websites and computer games for between 1-3 hours on an average school day decreases young people’s overall happiness. Furthermore, use of games consoles for 1-3, or 4 or more hours, and use of social media for 4 or more hours, resulted in an increase in the socioemotional difficulties experienced by young respondents.

James Lloyd suggested several reasons for the apparent association of increased screen technology usage with decreasing wellbeing in young people. Using screen technologies can displace face-to-face interactions, for example, which increases mood-lowering social isolation. A ‘digital diet’ of sedentary screen usage also limits physical activity and disrupts sleep patterns, which can have a negative affect on young people’s physical and mental health.

Lucie Russell from YoungMinds, the mental health and well-being service for young people, was keen to emphasise the latter, arguing that the nature of young people’s experiences of digital technology, including the exposure to other users’ ‘inauthentic’ images, cyber-bullying, and harmful content, creates 24/7 pressures on young people. ‘FOMO’, or fear of missing out, and the need to create a successfully curated ‘brand me’ on social media are examples of harmful phenomena driven by the addictive ‘refresh’ buttons on social media sites.

All present were keen, however, to emphasise that digital is not necessarily doom-ridden. Joe Hayman from the PSHE association personally attested to the amazing benefits that accessing the Internet and all its information can bring. However, he also felt that a better digital education is needed to help all young people navigate the online world in a way that enhanced, rather than limited, their wellbeing. He used the example of air-brushed images, which inescapably pop up on almost any webpage or site, and are known to increase body dissatisfaction and dysmorphia in those who view them. Teaching young people the skills to view such images critically, as illusions rather than realities, could help them to increase their self-confidence.

The panel called on tech companies to take responsibility for their huge role in young people’s everyday lives. They should consider how the design of their products could be changed to improve young people’s experiences of them; they should provide and support education of young people in the use of technology; and they should provide clear messaging about healthy technological habits, such as daily usage recommendations. The changes need to be co-developed with young people, not just for them, Lucie Russell argued, as not only does this recognise the significant abilities and agency that young people already possess in negotiating the cybersphere, but would also ensure that any positive developments made to current tech actually help those that they were designed for.

We should not allow this situation to be strung out by companies looking to fudge the issues with claims that more evidence is required to act, as the tobacco industry once did. As James Lloyd was right to point out, action need not be tied to ‘perfect’ research, as we have enough concrete evidence now, and abject perfection, in any enquiry, does not exist. We live in a rapidly evolving world of technology, in which wearables, ingestables, embeddables and other revolutions are going to make it harder to distinguish physical reality from the virtual and any causal flows between them. So action is required right now while there is still some perspective available. Will companies do the right thing? Or will they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to face their responsibilities?

Isobel Talks