Once a month I head into the BBC to review the newspapers on Radio Manchester. It’s an early start that rather wipes out my prime working hours, and it doesn’t pay (unlike most of my media work these days). But it’s fun, and it’s a good excuse to read all the papers, side by side, for a couple of hours. I write it off as research, both into the big stories of the moment, and into the state of media and debate.
Much of the ‘news’, certainly on the front pages and in the comment sections, could best be categorised as ‘disaster porn’. One way or another, the world is going to hell in a handcart. I’m no media historian but I’d be willing to bet this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Risk represents an engaging story, especially when that risk is to your health, wealth, or firmly-held opinions.
The reality of course is (mostly) rather different. Taken over the long term, we have drastically improved our health and wealth, and arguably our firmly-held opinions: we no longer blame witches for misfortune. The path of progress will always be unsteady, and individuals and whole generations may suffer as a result. But as a species we seem to be on a fairly positive track, with one clear caveat: much of our progress has been at the expense of our environment. The papers that most enjoy their disaster porn stories seem less keen to report the realities of this issue.
The nature of my role and expertise means that the societal ‘disaster’ on which I am most frequently asked to comment is the intervention of technology in social interactions. Believe the papers, and the latest book-peddling therapist (sometimes with, but more often without, real evidence), and the internet is turning children into screen-addicted zombies, devoid of social skills and entirely dependent on their various devices for social interaction.
This narrative holds just until I get to the school gates and witness a few hundred children running around, shouting, laughing, playing football and tag, climbing, swinging, and living out imaginary worlds, as they always have.
Just yesterday, I got asked to comment on Apple shareholders’ move to increase parental controls on iOS devices on TalkRadio. There’s a sense that ‘something must be done’ and that it is the tech companies that must do it. But I’m sceptical — both of the problem, and of the measures to address it.
Firstly, if there was a generation of children who were negatively affected by excessive access to the internet, then I think they’re already in their teens and twenties. The ones who were young when smartphones and social media were novelties, and parents had even less concept of how — or why — to control access than they do today. I can’t evidence this, but it’s a hypothesis I’d be willing to test if anyone has the funding.
For the most part, the young people I see use their digital devices predominantly for three things: organising future events, capturing those events, and retrospectively discussing those events. Their digital interactions facilitate and revolve around their physical interactions. Yes, they love gaming, and YouTube, but mostly as a healthy part of their entertainment mix.
Secondly, even if there is a persistent negative effect beyond a limited population of children with addictive or social disorders, or suffering the effects of neglectful parenting, I’m very sceptical that technical solutions will offer any respite. What value are additional parental controls in a world of connected devices? How does that do anything but disguise and delay a potential problem until children leave home?
In our assessment of both problem, and solution, we underestimate the value of the human touch. How much we still crave social interaction — physical interaction even, which is what the teenagers are still chasing, just as they always were. And how much we need guidance, as we learn to explore the digital world, which is no less a mix of good and bad than the physical world it supplements.