The internet isn’t dangerous for kids

Every new technology becomes an object of moral panic.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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Concerns over children’s use of social media hit the headlines again last week with the publication of a report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI). The report reviewed the evidence of the impact that social-media use can have on children’s mental health. It cites a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which found that 37.3 per cent of British 15-year-olds are ‘extreme internet users’. That is defined by the OECD as someone who uses the internet for more than six hours on a typical day.

Unlike some ‘research’ by advocacy groups, which often sensationalises social problems, the EPI report is fairly balanced. It found many positive things about the time young people spend online. They can increase their social connections, help each other with homework, develop their identities and share their creative projects. There’s also some evidence that young people’s wellbeing can be boosted through social-media use. The report argues that ‘teenagers with mental-health problems or concerns are able to seek support on the internet, either through social-media networks or through online provision of advice and counselling support’.

There can be negatives, too, such as spending an excessive amount of time online, sharing too much information, being cyberbullied. And then there’s influence of social media on body image, and the ability of young people to access harmful content or advice – such as websites that promote self-harm.

But even here, perspective is needed. Rates of cyberbullying and the sharing of sexual images are not as common as often portrayed in the media. For example, the report worked out that 2.9 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 had taken nude pictures of themselves, 55 per cent of whom had shared them. Twelve per cent of children reported being cyberbullied – and it’s worth remembering that the definition of what constitutes bullying is extremely broad.

According to Emily Frith, director of mental health at the EPI, the research highlights ‘the importance of equipping young people with skills that help them counter emerging online risks. That doesn’t mean protecting them from the internet but rather putting forward proactive measures centred on resilience-building – an approach that is vital in helping young people lead safe digital lives.’

In other words, despite the evidence about social-media use being mixed, and in some cases positive, there is apparently still a need for greater intervention in children’s lives.

The EPI report uses the term ‘mental wellbeing’ in its widest sense. It points out that many of the studies it cites likewise adopted a broad definition of mental health. But far from increasing our understanding of problems among the young, such a sweeping definition of mental-health problems can actually lead to a lack of clarity over the number of children who need professional help.

For example, a 2016 report into young people’s mental health found that in the year 2014/15, 87.4 children per 100,000 of the UK population required hospital admission due to mental-health issues. To put this in perspective, it equates to just 0.0874 per cent of children. It is not unreasonable to assume that a substantial proportion of these admissions are likely to be from the 1.6-1.9 per 100,000 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which can be one of the most distressing and disabling forms of mental distress.

Between the need for hospital admission and a happy child there lies a range of emotions, from the unpleasant to the extremely distressing. However, despite their worries, insecurities and difficulties in making the transition to adulthood, the vast majority of today’s children are, contrary to many reports, coping well enough with their problems.

For all the EPI report’s balance, it merely provides a snapshot of present-day concerns about the internet. To gain a better grasp of what is going on, it is necessary to give the discussion some historical context. Fears of people being overwhelmed by technological advance are not new. In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates was concerned that writing would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories’. He advised parents only to allow children to hear wholesome allegories and not ‘improper’ tales, lest their development go astray.

The Socratic warning has been repeated many times since. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century led to fears that an overabundance of data would be confusing and harmful to the mind. The arrival of radio would distract children from reading and diminish school performance. Perhaps no bad thing, as ‘excessive study’ was also once seen as a cause of madness. The arrival of television caused widespread concern, too: some said it would have a negative effect on conversation, reading and traditional family life. The advent of personal computers and in particular the internet gave rise to concerns about the undermining of moral values and personal relationships. The Daily Mail went so far as to warn that ‘using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer’.

In discussing the above trends, the psychologist Vaughan Bell notes that ‘the older generation warns against a new technology and bemoans that society is abandoning the “wholesome” media it grew up with, seemingly unaware that this same technology was considered to be harmful when first introduced’. For Bell, ‘From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label’.

However, in this latter point Bell fails to identify a key difference today – which is the new tendency not to focus on the alleged moral threat that some new technology allegedly poses to children, but rather to emphasise its risks to mental health and wellbeing. This is reflective of a society in which ever-more social, political and existential problems are being reconceptualised as medical or psychological issues. In a period lacking moral clarity, things are not said to be bad per se – rather, they are described as detrimental to our psychological wellbeing. With the meaning of ‘wellbeing’ and indeed ‘mental health’ far from clear, a new source of moral authority can be exercised through the use of such psychological discourse.

The real danger is that we allow adult anxieties about technological advance and childhood vulnerability to exacerbate the climate of fear and generate medicalised moral panics. It would surely be better to treat real problems as they emerge, rather than problematising more and more areas of young people’s lives.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University. His most recent book, Empowerment: A Critique, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics


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