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The dangers of kids using technology. A modern day horror story we like to tell?

Frankenstein and Child

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.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Deborah Lupton

    Centenary Research Professor at University of Canberra

    You are quite right about all the morality tales around digital technologies, David. But consonant with these are those representing these technologies as able to enhance children's learning ('An iPad for every class!', 'Bring your own device to school!'), 'improve' safety by installing CCTV cameras in schools and useful to monitor their fitness levels and improve their sporting achievements as part of health and physical education. Big data are now represented as offering great potential for developing learning analytics in education.

    In these contexts digital technologies are represented in positive ways just as unquestioningly as are the negative archetypes of digitised children.

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  2. grant moule

    Consultant

    Another contributing factor is the increase of higher density living. When the average Australian household had a reasonable sized backyard and more nearby open spaces I think there was more chance of children making use of outdoor games and playing. When in small apartments (the preferred future according to many politicians and real estate developers) more hours are spent sitting in front of the TV or computer games.

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    1. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to grant moule

      There has been a huge decrease in the ability of children to explore outside as parent's have limited how far they are allowed to go (some research here https://www.be.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/upload/pdf/cf/hbep/research/Theses/Russell_thesis.pdf) - ironically, mobile phones should give parents more comfort about the safety of their kids if they go outside because of the ability to track them - but that doesn't seem to have outweighed their fears of the dangers.

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  3. Jay Wulf

    Digerati at nomeonastiq.com

    Certainly technology is dangerous to children.... but not this nonsense.

    Children soldiers using AK47 automatic rifles in conflicts.
    Children starving because western food advisors introduced mono strain, 'high yield' crops unsuitable for local conditions replacing hundreds of crops adapted through centuries for local crops.
    Children breathing in toxic smoke as they melt the innards of your old computer for scrap metal in african slums.
    Children mining rare-earths in africa so you can get your iPhone5 for a couple hundred bucks.

    Lets get a little bit sense of proportion here, the precious little apple of your eye getting some tablet time pales into insignificance in what 'the technology' is doing to children globally.

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  4. Colin McIvor

    Knowledge Management Aficiando

    great article David - it is a pet hate of mine when people use anecdotal as opposed to factual (dont get me started on the whole vaccine debate) - a few years ago I was on the WA Engineers Australia Committee and we had a photo taken to put on the wall along with the others, I noted that if you went back 100 years most of the members (apart from all being male and bearded) were very slim - as opposed to our photo where all were a tad rotund. This in all likelyhood had something to do with the fact that most had probably got up at 5 to milk cows etc and then ridden, walked to work - however - without the technology most probably died of cancer, heart disease etc earlier than we would today

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  5. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Has anyone looked at how technology (for personal use) is portrayed in popular TV and movies?

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  6. Allan Gardiner

    Dr

    It's said that "there's safety in numbers [so much for the security of a digitised world!]", but when you have too many people doing the same thing, like living in very close proximity to each each other, and/or using modern technology excessively, then Mother Nature will step in and make use of whatever means She thinks fit to 'thin out' [read as: 'fatten','flatten?'] the population.

    Let me give you the skinny, there is no way arotund..err..around preventing Her[d] from culling the herd…

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    1. John McCormick

      Clinical Nurse Educator

      In reply to Allan Gardiner

      Lots of "Just so stories" to explain things, with no actual evidence. There is as much evidence of technology harming people as there is for vaccines cause autism- ie none. And no-one picked up on the popular usage of Mary Shelley's monster being called Frankenstein, when the creature had no name, Frankenstein was his creator.

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  7. Russell Hamilton

    Librarian

    David, were you spurred to write this after reading the front page of the latest Fremantle Herald? Where Griffin Longley regrets that kids don't play outside enough; not enough "random mucking around" which he thinks might be producing "a raft of mental problems" ?

    He also mentions eye problems from too much indoor light. Which I suppose could be a side effect of kids staying inside and playing electronic games, or whatever they do.

    I suspect our parents had it right on intuition: when TV came along it wasn't allowed to be turned on 'in the day time' - that space between school and the evening meal was meant for playing outside. Of course there was a lot more bush around in those days for playing in.

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  8. Mike Jubow

    Forestry nurseryman at Nunyara Wholesale , Forestry consultants, seedling suppliers.

    Thanks for a timely article on speculative science. It has irritated me a lot over the years that, a scientist sometimes includes a speculation in a paper and then this is siezed on to become a science fact. This happens even when it is outside the factual conclusions that are part of the main body of the research done. In reality, this sort of speculation,supposition and assumptions are really calling for someone to look further into the subject, nothing more.

    Sometimes, there is an assumption…

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