Society’s mistrust of technology is deep-rooted. Fear of technology’s misuse has been exploited in popular horror and science fiction for hundreds of years. Mary Shelley’s monster Frankenstein for example, was the embodiment of an unnatural use of technology leading to horrific results. Stories such as these cemented the fear that technology, particularly an unnatural use of that technology, would generally do us no good in the end.
The theme that technology has the ability to harm through its unknown side-effects or properties has been repeated not only in popular fiction but in the public sphere, especially the media. In the course of history, no new technology has been introduced without an accompanying public fear that the use of that technology would cause the user harm.
The dangers of technology to children
It should come as no surprise then that the use of this narrative has been used repeatedly in reporting the dangers of technology use by children. The list of harms that will befall children using technology is extensive but ranges from increasing incidents of speech defects, increasing obesity and a greater likelihood of brain cancer.
Technology use and obesity
The link between technology and obesity is a particularly interesting example of how blame can be attributed very easily without very much evidence. One particular analysis was carried out by examining the level of a country’s investment in information technology and its rate of obesity. The data shows a clear relationship with increasing investment in technology and an increase in obesity of the population. The narrative that accompanies this observation is clear and simple. The “cause” of the obesity is the lack of activity brought on by increased use of computers and other technologies such as televisions and cars.
Although the use of cars would intuitively seem to be a possible cause for decreased activity, there is no evidence presented in this study that this is the actual reason for the population being fat. Using a computer or car, watching a television does not prevent anyone exercising or eating with moderation. But without any evidence, the link has been made. Technology gives rise to obesity.
Technology and speech defects
The evidence linking the use of technology and speech defects is equally absent. One article suggesting the link, reported the observation of an increased incidence children with speech defects of an inner-city Sydney school. The evidence that this was related to technology use was absent but the inference was there because the school principal expressed their concern that it was a cause. In both the article and the comments, the observation that everyone can recall what seems to them the ubiquitous use of technology by parents and their use of that technology to pacify their kids - something that is known colloquially as “Pass ‘n’ Play”.
Technology and cancer
As for the risk of cancer and in particular the increased risk of cancer in children using mobile phones, the National Cancer Institute summarises the lack of any evidence for a link between mobile phone use and an increased incidence of brain or neck cancers. This hasn’t stopped lobby groups from arguing that the evidence from reports was misrepresented and that there is indeed a significant risk to children.
Collecting actual evidence
All of this should not lead us to deny the existence of risks of children’s use of technology to their general development and wellbeing. It simply highlights the need for evidence that is free of anecdotal associations. Such evidence may come from studies like the one recently announced by Imperial College in the UK which plans to examine the effects of technology use on cognitive abilities in 2,500 11 - 12 year olds over a 2 year period. A secondary aspect to the study will be to try and estimate the children’s exposure to radiofrequency fields from mobile phone use.
The continued scary horror story
In the meantime however, we will continue to see articles calling for a ban of handheld technologies for children under the age of 12. In this case, most of the evidence presented as being causal of everything from mental illness to generalised addiction relates to studies talking about passive TV use again highlighting relationships and not causes.
It is interesting to note that almost the same claims of harm from technology use were made on the introduction of the original telephone at the turn of the 20th Century. The telephone was then believed to be a potential cause of insanity, nervous excitability and contagious disease.
The story of the technological dangers to children is a particularly effective one as nobody would knowingly put their children in harm’s way. There is also something to be said of the old saying that everything should be done in moderation and so moderating children’s access to technology is not likely to be a bad thing.