Baroness Benjamin: How to ensure our children are able to enjoy the benefits of modern technology
The unchecked influence of modern screen technology is having a concerning impact on the health and wellbeing of young people. The government must bring in measures to allow youngsters to enjoy tech without the threat, says Floella Benjamin
I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a fit and healthy childhood. As our nine published reports have shown, obesity has far-reaching consequences – for the child, their immediate family and wider society.
I’m glad to say that national awareness of the terrible damage that obesity can cause to physical and mental health is increasing. The government is beginning to get the message and, although more must be done, the 2016 child obesity strategy and the “sugar tax” may well be the forerunners of legislation to eliminate junk food and supermarket two-for-one deals. The APPG will remain a critical friend to any government acting in the best interests of our young people.
The arguments about child obesity are being articulated, although not always with the clarity that we would like. But when we consider the effect of screen time on children’s wellbeing, we have barely scratched the surface.
All too often, criticism of a child’s ‘right’ to the internet is at the level of ‘modernisers versus dinosaurs’ – today’s children versus their fuddy-duddy parents who are not so internet savvy. Opposing arguments are frequently superficial; sometimes running counter to the research that argues for a truly contemporary change of approach.
However, Jeremy Hunt is becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the unchecked influence of modern screen technology on the health and wellbeing of the younger generation. Most governments (at least initially) favour voluntary rather than statutory routes where possible, but our health secretary has found social media companies to be intransigent about the very idea of self-regulation.
At a time when another minister, Liz Truss, has confided to the BBC that she locks up her daughter’s phone in an effort to limit her screen time, Jeremy Hunt has charged internet industry leaders with “turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side-effects of social media prematurely”.
He said that it is “morally wrong and deeply unfair to parents who are faced with the invidious choice of allowing children to use platforms they are too young to access, or excluding them from social interaction that often the majority of their peers are engaging in”.
What is undeniable is that iGeners – those born between 1995 and 2012 – are suffering one of the most severe mental health crises for decades.
American psychologist Jean Twenge has written a book entitled iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. She concludes that children and young people face cyberbullying, anxiety about body shape, sleep deprivation, depression, isolation and increased anxiety – all exacerbated by excessive use of the smartphone and dependence on internet technology.
The Office for National Statistics (2016) found a clear association between longer time spent on social media and mental health problems. Young people who are heavy users of social media are more likely to report poor mental health, including psychological distress.
Seeing people online leading idealised lives can result in unhelpful comparisons, inadequacy, anxiety, self-consciousness, low self-esteem and the pursuit of perfectionism. Websites which normalise self-harm, eating disorders and the popularity of sites including distressing content such as live streaming of suicides are particularly worrying.
Online gaming sites which expose young people to violent and sexualised material are also of deep concern, as is cyberbullying which can erode young people’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
Of course, the above adverse effects of social media use are not the whole story. There are obvious benefits such as forming social connections, seeking support with homework and accessing advice.
It is important also to realise that, through various platforms, young people are able to garner a wealth of resource and communication opportunities. Social media can be a very effective platform for positive self-expression and can allow minority groups such as young people who identify as LGBTQ+ to connect with each other and build a sense of community, despite geographical separation.
How, then, can we ensure that our children are best protected to enjoy the bonuses of modern technology? There isn’t a silver bullet but here are some ideas:
The government must prioritise raising parental awareness of the risks of excessive internet use and ensure that all professionals involved with children and families are best equipped to convey this message from antenatal care onwards.
The national curriculum should include digital literacy, citizenship and resilience with age-appropriate curriculum content which focuses on developing these skills. App providers should embed safety features from the outset to prevent children’s exposure to harmful content.
The digital industry must have a duty to report and remove abuse within strict timescales, suspend the social media accounts of perpetrators and interrupt the user’s experience in response to inappropriate searches.
Government should promote greater opportunities for physical activity both in school and the wider community (thought to lead to a reduction in child mental health problems).
Policy and guidance in this area must be owned and overseen by the Department of Health, not the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or Department for Education.
These thoughts do not represent a complete answer. They do, however, offer an important first start in facilitating healthier ways in which children and young people use screen time, social media and the internet. That way, they can be what we all really want for them – cool and tech savvy but also, first and foremost, safe.
Baroness Benjamin is a Liberal Democrat peer and co-chair of the APPG on a fit and healthy childhood