Saturday, 30 March 2019

Digital dependency: addiction or fantasy?

More commonly than ever our lives are interrupted with ‘shock’ stories making us question the impact that technological advances are having on our lives. It’s not unusual for individuals to post photos, intimate or private things online and even parents, including Celebrities, seem to be posting photos of their children online - like Gwyneth Paltrow recently being outed by her daughter, Apple Paltrow, for sharing photos without her daughters consent. We seem to live our lives through our digital selves. 

Concurrently, headlines report that huge companies are hit with shocking data protection failings. Thank goodness for the new GDPR laws (which feels better late than never). Everyday we are receiving alerts: through the digital bodily extension that is our phone, tablet or laptop. 

Whether we choose to stop and reflect on this, the truth is that our lives are becoming increasingly digitally documented, monitored and influenced by the use of devices. But are we right to be scared of rapid new developments and what seems to be a growing dependency? And why are people up in arms about this new ‘digital drug’ to hit our high streets?

Karl Marx’s famous dictum, that religion is the “opium of the people”, was imitated in the 80s from those who held a fear of technological developments. In a research paper by Kern and Hainmueller (2007) they explore this idea and the use of media as an ‘Opium for the masses’ by drawing on evidence of World War Two: namely the “impact of West German television on political attitudes in communist East Germany.”  

If we look back to the bygone era of radio sets and then the golden age of the television sets, people feared then that those ‘sets’ were the new “opium” for the masses. Parents in the 80s and 90s readily stuck their children down in front of the box for a little peace and quiet, to get on with some chores or to allow themselves two uninterrupted words with friends. 

Following this, in the ‘modemified’ 2000s, it seemed like we were seeing a rise of internet addiction; popularity of computers and their progress towards something more affordable meant nearly every household had one. Now in the age of smart phones, there’s a new drug in town - social media and gaming addiction - and everyone is at it.

Unlike radio and television where there is an Ofcom legislated 9pm ‘watershed’ time, it is more difficult (but not impossible) to monitor what people can see on the internet at any time of the day. Parents use surveillance strategies or block their children’s devices: there is big money to be made and big money being made by companies selling ‘good parenting’ apps to enable this. However, despite their best efforts, it’s possible that this isn’t enough. 

Parents (like any adult in a child’s life) are role models. If they are seen on their phones then the child themselves will want to use phones: use of digital devices becomes normalized from a much younger age and is perhaps something we haven’t prepared for (we certainly don’t have the answers for it). Andra Siiback, Professor of Media Studies from Tartu University, suggested in her presentation ‘Digital Parenting and the birth of the Datafied child’ at Utrecht University (2019), that parents are the “gatekeepers”.  Are parents not the ones who can and should monitor their child’s life, online or otherwise? If so, it would make sense then that they have the rights and privacy of their child in mind? And so the responsibility would seem to fall on them, to set an example and to monitor their child’s digital activity?

However, it seems like being a parent in the 21st century is never ending - a sort of ‘transcendent parenting’ (Siiback 2019): a timeless and relentless role, one which remains a thankless task. This focus on 24 hour online access and remote ‘technical mediation’ means that parents are rarely getting (or taking) time off. But what impact is this having on them? The parent-child relationships? Or even on the young people being directly affected by this? 

Unsurprisingly research and news reports increasingly show that they (9-17year olds) are fed up! They feel constantly monitored and want their rights acknowledged and respected. Or else, they don’t have a clue to what extent their mobile lives are being tracked and tamed. If this is the society we are living in, perhaps we need to think about the purposes of surveillance, digital use and ultimately the impact this will have on families (and society) in the future.

Of course, when things go wrong there’s a tendency to point the finger - but to whom should it point? The child - innocent? The parent - did their best: had controls in place? Social media platforms - who us? Currently social media platforms relinquish and accept some responsibility in equal measure. What is posted online can only be controlled so far, we are told, and there is the matter of ‘freedom of speech’. Has this Frankenstein’s monster got out of control? 

Like the monster, it even has its own language. 

Have you heard of - Big data? Every one of us, unknowingly, provide data to companies every minute of every day when we use our phones or the internet. These companies are then selling it on and/or using it to sell us ‘what we need’. It’s a commercialization dream.

What about - The Datafied Child? Something of a contradiction, parents who later on in life want to ‘protect’ their children from the online world of monsters and wonders are the same parents who create their child’s online footprint. Even before the infant is adept at using a tablet (which, by the way, is happening at an increasingly younger age), let alone old enough to utter any sounds, new born ‘datafied’ babies are leaving their digital trace. In 2010 81% of children had an online identity. 

Part way of explaining this is the modern phenomenon of ‘sharenting’. This is where parents seek support, solace and success from their peers by sharing photos and updates about their child/children online. This in turn is creating a generation of child “social shadows” (Leaver, 2015). Is it any wonder that their children continue this trend when they themselves become digitally active?

Despite the popularity of insta-babying there is a new wave of anti-sharenting: with fears of digital kidnapping and publicized catastrophic data hacks, parents are taking a stand. As the “digital native” in the parent-child relationship, they are taking a more “do as I do”, and “say as I say” approach; in a recent survey conducted in the UK, 71.3% of parents said they ‘do not like sharenting’ and are refusing to post any photos online. 

Interestingly, there were some conflicting findings made from similar research in Estonia. It was uncovered that although parents said they didn’t like their children using digital devices, in interviews children claimed that the reality was different. Of the 9-17year olds interviewed, 41% said they were online for 2-3hours day while parents put this statistic as much lower. Furthermore, 97% children claim to be online everyday and adult online daily use has gone up from 69-95% (Livingstone 2015). Is someone getting it wrong? Or do we need to consider perspective and the foci that the different groups are taking?

Koning et al (Utrecht University, 2018) as part of the ongoing Dynamics of Youth project, conducted research into perspective in primary and secondary aged children and their parents. Research showed discrepancies between the ‘rules’ the parent perceived they were enforcing (e.g. no phones before bed, no phones to bed and no more than 3 hours online) versus the child’s take on things (basically, the opposite to what the parents said). Parents were shown to considerably underestimate the child’s internet use. This is similar to findings in research done on alcohol abuse. Koning et al. examined the ‘effective parenting’ techniques used and discovered more similarities with alcohol abuse: most notably an increase in the frequency of communication about the ‘abuse’ behavior (internet, alcohol or otherwise) had a negative effect on the child’s progress. In other words, it had a worsening impact: talk about it? Expect an increased use by the child.

So would preventative measures work? According to Koning it’s a complicated issue. With 80% of parents surveyed initiating their child’s use of digital devices, and 60% not wanting to intervene when the child is using the device, we need to ask whether parents are the right and proper gatekeepers. Furthermore, with the rise of digital behavior in society in general and the swift and steady move towards A.I. (which we have been told will change the face of ‘work’ and ‘employability skills’) are any of us in any position to be limiting the use of digital technologies?


As with any dependency, the digital world is no different: it can be an addiction, it is a place of fantasy and escapism. But increasingly, and this is something that terrifies me because I know so little about it, the digital world will become a place of reality (for some or all of us, eventually). Artificial but real. So surely it is about this that we need to be asking the questions - for ourselves, for the children and for the future of soceity.

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