Which technology will save us from technology?

We don't yet know the full impact of virtual reality and social media on developing minds

Children pose for a picture next to a robot waiter at the "White Fox" restaurant in the eastern part (left bank of the Tigris river) of Iraq's northern city of Mosul, on November 17, 2021. AFP
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Earlier this month, King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture - Ithra published a global report on digital well-being. Based on a survey of 15,000 adults from across 30 nations, the Saudi-led initiative is one of the most extensive studies of its kind to date and aims to explore the state of our relationships to the internet, smartphones, social media and gaming. The survey findings add to a growing global concern about the impact of such everyday digital technologies on our physical, psychological and social well-being.

However, the Ithra report is far from a catalogue of doom, gloom and technophobia. Instead, it is a candid and constructive look at both the pros and cons of our current relationship with technology. For example, most respondents – 88 per cent – endorsed the idea that digital technologies were a force for global good. Even social media, which has come in for much criticism in recent years, was widely viewed (69 per cent) as improving quality of life.

These favourable findings align with the Health Behaviour in School-age Children Survey (HBSC), a large collaborative cross-national study led by the World Health Organisation. Analysis of the 2018 HBSC data, collected from over 155 thousand adolescents across Europe, found a positive relationship between frequent use of social media and emotional well-being. This was especially true in those nations where regular social media use had become the norm. In short, being on social media when everybody else is, seems to be associated with better emotional well-being.

A man plays games on the entrance of the restaurant in Shanghai, China, 22 September 2021. Douyin, China's version of the famous short video app TikTok, will limit the use of the platform for children under 14 years old to 40 minutes a day. The new rules come as China limits teenagers' use of technology. EPA

Not all the indicators on the Ithra survey were positive, though. It included measures designed to assess behavioural addiction symptoms: persistence (using tech for longer than intended), displacement (tech time eating into other activities) and deception. For example, 31 per cent said they had misled people, including friends or family, about the amount of time they spent online. Similarly, 48 per cent of respondents reported spending "more time online than they would like to". Around 40 per cent said technology interfered with their ability to focus on day-to-day tasks and workplace duties. Such concerns are echoed on Google's digital well-being site, where the tech giant suggests: "...technology should improve life, not distract from it".

To be on the safe side, we should presume harmful effects of technology on children

Further exploring digital habits, the Ithra survey asked about time spent on social media. Over a quarter (28 per cent) of participants reported using social media for more than four hours each day. But how long is too long? Some of us have lots of leisure time, and many of us increasingly use social media as an occupational tool. Furthermore, several recent research studies have differentiated between active (interacting, commenting, posting) and passive (aimless, non-interactive scrolling) social media use. Unsurprisingly, passive use is associated with poorer well-being. As a result, questions about how long we spend on social media are becoming meaningless. The more thoughtful question is about what we do when we get there: empty click and scroll or active, meaningful engagement.

As with social media, questions about gaming also revealed that some people are struggling to strike a healthy balance. For example, over half (51 per cent) of respondents – those who gamed online – reported playing for longer than they intended (persistence). Additionally, around a third (29 per cent) of gamers reported experiencing negative emotions when they stopped playing (withdrawal). Furthermore, among those gamers who had attempted to take a prolonged break from gaming (detox), only 29 per cent lasted longer than a week (relapse).

Beyond the individual, the Ithra survey also asked questions about children and technology use. The responses reveal a deep ambivalence among some groups. For example, while many (44 per cent) parents allowed their children unsupervised access to the internet, most (89 per cent) also attempted to limit screen time, aiming to keep it below 2 hours a day.

Adam Schneider, 7, centre right, reads on a tablet computer with his older brother Isaiah, 9, in their bedroom, on December 8, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York. Their mother April Schneider says she is lucky her two oldest children attend the same school and can share technology. AP

Again, we can see a tension here: a struggle between balancing access to benefits and preventing potential harms. A recent study reported by the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority suggests that achieving such a balance is a growing concern. Their study, undertaken in 2021, found that the average screen time of children (0-8 years old) in Abu Dhabi increased from two to three hours a day. The World Health Organisation recommends only an hour a day.

Concerns about children's technology use are well-founded. This is because the full impacts of virtual reality, electronic games and social media on developing minds are poorly understood. The Centre for Humane Technology, an NGO dedicated to radically reimagining the digital world, advocates that, to be on the safe side, we should "presume harm". If we are unsure about the adverse affects for a child's cognitive, social, and emotional development, we would be wise to limit use.

Ithra's global report on digital well-being represents a valuable starting point for an international and more systematic approach to emerging issues and opportunities in our online world. The survey looks set to become an annual event, allowing us to undertake international benchmarking and monitor progress over time.

There is no doubt that digital technologies power progress. However, managing our relationship with such technologies is central to sustainable success.

Published: February 21, 2022, 9:00 AM