Children and screen use

On the day that a major study has found that using the internet alters our brains, in particular reducing our ability to focus, this article has been published by Dr Aric Sigman in the journal Pediatric Research.

Erring on the wrong side of precaution – Dr Eric Sigman.

Children’s screen media habits are embedded early and last for decades and probably for life. By the time the average American child finishes their 8th year, they will have spent more than a full year of 24-h days on recreational screen time. Shaping their screen media habits in a positive direction from an early stage is therefore imperative.

At a time when discretionary (non-homework) screen time (DST) is the single main activity of First World children, medical bodies from WHO to the US, Australian and New Zealand Departments of Health to the American Academy of Pediatrics and Canadian Pediatric Society increasingly offer parents recommended DST limits as a sensible precautionary measure while research continues. The paper by Pagani et al. and the lead author’s previous work reports ‘developmental persistence in how youth invest their discretionary time’ but adds a new dimension: screen location in early years predicts higher DST and significantly less favourable health and developmental outcomes years later and concludes that ‘This research supports a strong stance for parental guidelines on availability and accessibility.’

Yet on the journey to societal awareness, these public health messages are often met with various calculated obstructions. Parents, including health professionals, are often informed about children and DST through mainstream media, social media, blogs and free online encyclopedias where the issue is often portrayed as an ongoing ‘hotly debated’ cultural issue reflecting a clash between generations, with accompanying headlines such as ‘Screen Time: Is it good or bad for our kids?’.

The Times recently informed the British public that the ‘mental health risk of screens’ for teenagers is no greater than ‘eating potatoes’, explaining that medical concerns are based on ‘cherry-picking of vague research that throws up spurious correlations’.

The New York Times Health section asks ‘But surely screen addiction is somehow bad for the brain?’ and immediately answers ‘It’s probably both bad and good for the brain’, reassuring parents that because they watched hours of TV a day themselves as youngsters, ‘their experiences may be more similar to their children’s than they know’.

The BBC has just informed Britain ‘Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told. There is little evidence screen use for children is harmful in itself, guidance from leading paediatricians says’.

It is worth pointing out that, uniquely, information about the association between DST and paediatric health is increasingly controlled by and accessed through the very media being studied. Screen media often presents itself as a mere neutral platform through which to access information; however, it is worth considering, for example, that BBC Worldwide generates $1.4 billion in ‘Headline’ sales annually from its screen-based products and services. Furthermore, it is almost entirely unheard of for journalists or media to reveal that a DST health study being reported on in the news often emanates from an institution with significant funding from well-known screen media corporations including Google and Facebook.

There are more concerted overtures to influence public and professional perception of this health issue and prevent or discredit precautionary guidance. In 2017, a group of 81 predominantly British and American academic psychologists, including notable luminaries, were so ‘deeply concerned’ about the prospect of British Government health authorities merely offering loose precautionary guidance to parents on excessive child DST that they signed an open letter published in a national newspaper read by many doctors, urging Government doctors not to do so because it would be on the basis of ‘little to no evidence’ that ‘risks’… ‘potentially harmful policies’. Guidelines for parents should be ‘built on evidence, not hyperbole and opinion’.

The Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Hub, University of California, has attacked the APA’s ‘killjoy ‘screen time’ rules that had deprived countless kids’, lamenting ‘but damage has been done.’

Such debate and conflicting stories may be good for news and social media, drawing the eye to contrariness. However, this is undermining ongoing initiatives to raise awareness among parents that excessive DST is an evolving health issue and to encourage and support them in limiting their children’s excess and late night use.

The purported justification for refraining from offering precautionary DST guidelines is a lack of evidence-based decision-making. Moreover, we are informed most of the evidence is correlational, some of the effect sizes are small, some findings are inconclusive, therefore precautionary guidelines are premature and unjustified.

This point of view appeals to our belief in the impartiality of science and preference for evidence-based decision-making, whereby any precautionary paediatric guidance is ‘grounded in robust research evidence’: systematic reviews of longitudinal randomised controlled studies.

We would all like to have the luxury of formulating public health guidance on the basis of comprehensive neatly quantified data from prospective randomised controlled trials. And it is frustrating to find that the study of DST does not conform to that of other more established areas of paediatric public health.

However, this copious popular refrain ‘evidence-based’ reported in the media is an entirely disingenuous misappropriation of the entire concept of evidence-based medicine. When it comes to policy-making and guidance on child health, the established position remains ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. For example, WHO considers the precautionary principle ‘a guiding principle… for WHO and everyone engaged in public health’.

There are times in paediatric public health/preventive medicine when the luxury of ‘robust research evidence’ is not yet available. Moreover, as Pagani et al.’s study design makes clear, DST is obviously not a pharmaceutical substance but a complex, multi-factorial lifestyle behaviour.2 Therefore, producing definitive proof of causation in the many domains of study, from neurobiology to psycho-social, will be a long time coming.

And this is where the calculated obstructions come in to play. As WHO observes, ‘The precautionary principle is occasionally portrayed as contradicting the tenets of sound science and as being inconsistent with the norms of “evidence-based” decision-making… these critiques are often based on a misunderstanding of science and the precautionary principle… people must humbly acknowledge that science has limitations in dealing with the complexity of the real world… thus, there is no contradiction between pursuing scientific progress and taking precautionary action.’

Positioning themselves as standard-bearers of high empiricism, those opposed to offering precautionary DST guidance have appropriated the term ‘evidence-based’ in an attempt to mislead society into thinking that to selectively highlight research findings of unfavourable associations between screen misuse and health outcomes and err on the side of the precautionary principle while research continues is a form of unprofessional ‘cherrypicking’ of the evidence. It implies an attempt at public deception through the intentional omission of unsupportive evidence. Misutilitising the term ‘evidence-based’ is a move to misportray those erring on the side of precaution as employing lower empirical standards, and to those unfamiliar with the precautionary principle and standard protocols in paediatric public health—the public and most media—this may seem a convincing exorcism of shoddy practice. It certainly makes for provocative, entertaining media.

This media carnival, in essence, leaves the AAP, the US, Australian and New Zealand Departments of Health, and WHO among others, along with the authors of many highly respected studies conducted at highly respected institutions published in highly reputable journals, as incompetent, untrustworthy and unprofessional. It wrongly casts them as ignoring the intellectual and social benefits of screen technology and preventing children from ‘exploring the world around them’ and developing their full potential.

Such a position indicates either a profound misunderstanding or the intentional obfuscation of the relationship between science and the precautionary principle, and a high disregard for the experience and clinical judgement of child health professionals.

Those opposed to offering precautionary DST guidance have wilfully avoided the distinction between in-house empirical arguments between scientists versus the routine need to develop responsible general protective health guidance for children. They have misappropriated and emphasised the obvious limitations of existing research as a way of casting doubt on the entire public health issue and on the credibility of those simply advocating moderation and sensible precaution, in the hope that DST guidelines will be perceived as impetuous and premature scaremongering. We are urged to err on the wrong side of caution.

However, rigidly adhering to an abstract principle of high empiricism, with a distorted interpretation of evidence-based medicine taking precedence over the protection of children’s health, should be considered self-indulgent and medically unethical. Furthermore, it reveals a high disregard for the important role of the experience and judgement of child health professionals to interpret available evidence, and promotes a hubristic picture of psychology and ‘educational technology’ researchers knowing better than the many paediatric and public health professionals what is best for protecting child health.

The burden of ‘proof’ must now be on them to demonstrate that high and/or premature exposure to DST—and now bedroom screens—pose no health and development risks to children. The time has come for health professionals to begin to scrutinise the motives of those attempting to obstruct provisional guidance on child DST. They are violating the precautionary principle. Fortunately, research teams such Pagani et al continue to uphold it by addressing the elephant in the room—the overlooked issue of how the mere location of a screen may potentiate greater DST and attenuate necessary developmental experiences. We should follow their advice.


I got an email from the Guardian newspaper yesterday asking if I could write 600 words on bandwidth – by the end of the day. My answer was no – I was moving house in 24-hours (why I’m blogging right now I have no idea!). Anyway, I passed the request over to Ross Dawson, with whom I’ve worked, who is far more articulate on this subject than I am. It ‘s turned into a nice piece.


Here’s a little taste of the next What’s Next report out soon….

You may not have noticed this but we are becoming increasingly fascinated with the undead. Over the past few years, TV shows and computer games about Zombies have been invading movie theatres, living rooms and computers.

So what’s going on here? Why are we so interested in something that can’t talk and doesn’t mind getting shot? Perhaps it’s not what these creatures are but rather what they represent. Maybe zombies (and vampires) represent a subconscious fear about the consequences of untethered scientific research? Or maybe it’s to do with a fear of disease (vampires equals HIV/Aids, SARS or perhaps a loss of purity and innocence).

Better still, what if our fascination with the undead is rather related to how we feel about everyday life? Maybe Night of the Living Dead is analogous with working late at the office? You might even draw parallels between blasting 200 zombies with an automatic rifle and rapidly deleting hundreds of emails in the office on a Monday morning. You can spend all day doing either, but like tweets and Facebook updates they just keep on coming.

I think that’s it. On a superficial level there is pleasure in just destroying things, but at a deeper level what these things represent is the Internet.

We are fearful about the Internet – and perhaps machines in general – consuming us rather than the other way around. It is about having our life (our souls)  taken away from us by things that cannot be deleted, cannot be paused and cannot be ignored.

Things that won’t talk to us and don’t seem to understand what it means to be human.

Future of the Internet

Having recently read The Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain, a Futurist Update link to a post by Lisa Donchak caught my eye this morning. She has identified 3 trends (the three Rs) concerning the future of the internet and social media.

1. Real Names

Part of the allure of the internet has been the ability to browse sites anonymously. However, as Donchak comments: “the internet is shifting towards a model based more on individual accountability. Facebook has algorithms that attempt to detect whether or not you’ve put in a real name. Google+ is asking users to input their real names, too.” Confirmation of identity is likely to be a next step in the evolution of the internet, because without it secure transactions, accountability and reputation metrics will not work.

Links: Trust, transparency, authenticity, data security, reputation, provenance.

2. Regulation

In the future the internet is likely to be much more regulated than it is today and this will impact the behaviour of both individuals and organizations. Interestingly, Donchak cites an EU discussion of a “Right to be Forgotten” (i.e. do not track me) law, whereby websites would be forced to respect user privacy and delete user data after a specified period. One real possibility not discussed in the post, but which features strongly in Zittrain’s book, is the idea that the internet could be locked down so that it is no longer generative or that national governments could replace the internet with a series of highly regulated and censored national intranets.

Links: Privacy, censorship, trust, data security, secrecy, control,

3. Reputation
Not surprisingly, internet users are increasingly thinking about the reputation of organisations before they put their personal data into those organisations’ websites.
Facebook, for example, has got into numerous scrapes because it is no totally transparent (to people with no time to find out) about what it does with its data. Google+ is pulling people away from Facebook, not because it offers a superior product, but simply because it isn’t Facebook.

Links: Trust, privacy, spam,

Giving up technology (is difficult)

A study by of 1,000 people by Intersperience, a customer research firm, has found that 53% felt upset when denied access to computers and other devices connected to the internet for a single day. A further 40% found that they experienced loneliness when unable to go online. Overall, the impact of switching off from the internet was similar to giving up addictive drugs such as tobacco or alcohol.

From the internet to wine and ideas

I was struggling with The Future of the Internet last night (it’s a book) so I returned to Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters by Jonathan Nossiter. The start of this is tedious, but once he gets going it’s great. I especially like the thought that Robert Parker (The American wine critic) has replaced one kind of tyranny with another in Bordeaux. What matters now is sweet, alcoholic, overly ripe and generally infantile wines.

Anyway, point of this is he has a nice line in the book, which relates to innovation and scenario planning (keep with me on this it’s worth it). He says that: “No idea exists until it is verbalized. If an idea is badly verbalized it continues not to exist.”

That’s why how people describe new products, services or scenarios is so vitally important. Indeed this is why the naming of a scenario is so critical.

War and the Art of Innovation

Few quick snippets plus something longer to ponder…

I forgot to say how impressed I was with the Global and Mail whilst in Canada recently. This is a really good newspaper. Couple of interesting thoughts from Tuesday’s edition. Firstly, an article on internet reform by Jeffrey Hunker (author of Creeping failure: How We Broke the Internet and What We Can Do to Fix It). He points out that in the case of the cyber superworm Stuxnet and the WikiLeaks inspired ‘hacktivist’ attacks on US government and commercial sites the perpetrators are still unknown. In other words, events in cyberspace can have “serious consequences, yet are largely outside the framework of accountability.” He goes on to liken the internet to London during the time of Dickens. A rapidly growing and chaotic place filled with crime and ineffective government. Consequences? I’ve spoken about this before, but one implication is not that the internet will break technically, but that people may simply get fed up with using it.

Other quick snippets from the Globe and Mail. One, the global population will hit 7 billion in the second half of 2011. Two, scientists have found that people forced to turn off mobile phones, email and the internet suffer from psychological and physical symptoms similar to those experienced by drug addicts going ‘cold turkey’

OK, now the long one to ponder. I’ve just written this for the next issue of What’s Next (up next week). Read it and then ask yourself whether this has any implications for large firms fighting other large firms using innovation as a key weapon.

The world, in case you haven’t noticed, is suffering from two simultaneous shocks. The first is technological. The development of the internet is reshaping the world in a manner similar to the industrial revolution two centuries earlier. The second is global instability. The end of the Cold War is a prime cause of this, but globalisation, deregulation and resources are also playing their part. Nevertheless, the thinking within the US military is largely unchanged. For example, the US has spent around $1 trillion ($3 trillion according to one estimate) on the war in Iraq and is now “close to punching itself out” according to John Arquilla, a Professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

The fundamental issue is scale. The dominant doctrine within the Pentagon is still “shock and awe” and, to achieve overwhelming force, the US spends billions on big ships, big guns and big battalions. This might work if you are fighting a conventional war, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it doesn’t work very well against networked adversaries. In the UK there has been both shock and awe that UK defence budget is being cut. The thinking is that one can only perform worse with less. Similarly, in the US, there are calls for more and more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But perhaps bigger isn’t always better. Small units of soldiers can be highly effective, especially when they are connected to other small units or small numbers of aircraft. This is rule one of John Arquila’s new rules for war – that many and small beats few and large. After all, what exactly is the point of giant aircraft carriers in an age of supersonic anti-ship missiles? Hundreds of small craft equipped with smart weapons are likely to be more effective.

Similarly, being in love with expensive and sophisticated weapons is all very well but many smart systems are almost unworkable in many of the situations that Western armies now find themselves. Rule two is that finding matters more than flanking. Flanking has worked historically, but the game has now moved on. Think, for example, of the 400,000 Iraqi troops that just “melted away” when confronted by US forces in 2003 only to reappear as hit and run insurgents in the months and years afterwards.

The idea here is that rather than being organised as a “shooting organization” the military needs to be redesigned around a “hider-finder dynamic” and act as a “sensing organization” too. After all, before you fight an enemy you have to find them and this is becoming increasing difficult when enemies use networking technologies to rapidly communicate and organise themselves.

Rule 3 is that swarming is the new surging. Swarming is the type of attack used by terrorists coming at a target from several different directions at once or attacking several targets simultaneously. The November 2008 Mumbai attack conducted by just two five-man teams is an example, as is the Hezbollah conflict with Israel during the summer of 2006.

Despite this, US Grand Strategy is still configured to deal with a single large threat rather than multiple, smaller or simultaneous threats. In a networked age, even very small teams armed with the most basic weapons can cause huge amounts of damage, but most military planners seem to be unaware of this or, if they are aware of it, are failing to act on this knowledge. There is a saying that generals are always fighting the last war. Seems some of them are still planning it too.

BTW, a final thought. I note that a Russian investment firm has taken a stake, along with Goldman Sachs, in Facebook. So the Russians now have in interest in a company that has intimate details on 550 million people including a large chunk of Americans. Hey, who needs thousands of spies when millions of people just tell you everything without you asking! Given the recent uproar about foreign firms buying strategically important US (physical) assets I’m rather surprised that this wasn’t stopped.

What if the Internet Disappeared?

What would happen if the internet disappeared tomorrow? Would we really care? They’d be panic initially, of course. But would anything of real substance disappear? People would initially argue that they couldn’t “do anything.” Commerce, democracy and liberty itself would then be said to be under threat.

Personally, I think that life would eventually go on much as it did before. The internet is a wonderful thing, but most of its power comes from a mixture of convenience and efficiency and the downside is that human relationships are being fragmented and demeaned.
There’s also the argument, eloquently outlined by Jaron Lanier, that Web 2.0 is really nothing more than endlessly reheated and rehashed content and that friendships found online are “fake”. They are “bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers.”

As for the wisdom of crowds, forget it. Yes, a network can solve local ‘weak tie’ problems, such as where to find a good dry cleaner. Large numbers of people are also good at solving simple problems or filtering ideas, but most Web 2.0 content is vapid, mawkish, puerile and of no enduring significance. And yes, that includes this blog.