Opinion | Monday, 4th February 2019

Safer Internet Day 2019: using the positive power of the internet for good

Dr Bex Lewis reflects on media stories of the last year and focuses on getting the best from our screen time

Safer Internet Day 2019
Safer Internet Day 2019

As Safer Internet Day arrives tomorrow (February 5, 2019), with its theme of using technology responsibly, respectfully, critically and creatively, Dr Bex Lewis, Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age (Lion Hudson, 2014), reflects on the themes of the stories that she has been asked to comment upon in the press this past year. 

This year, Safer Internet Day focuses upon encouraging young people to explore how they ask, give, and receive consent online, within friendships or relationships, sharing content or managing their privacy and data to ensure that they take control of their online lives, and use the positive power of the internet for good.

The media, by its nature, tends to focus on the extreme and the tragic, as ‘fear sells’. Blaming the technology often seems to offer an easy fix, but correlations in data don’t necessarily imply causation, and can mean that we are directing attention and money to the wrong issues, rather than seeking the true causes. Many of the risks we are likely to encounter are small and easily addressed, but they are not new or glamorous and so tend not to attract press, and therefore politicians’, attention. I try to counterbalance this, and I’m often called on to offer a perspective on ‘enjoying the best’, whilst ‘avoiding the worst’.

Over this past year, media stories have overwhelmingly focused on screentime, with questions of how much time typically countered by me, with an encouragement to focus on the quality of content that children (and adults!) engage with.  

For September 2018, the Royal Society for Public Health encouraged #ScrollFreeSeptember, one of several stories highlighting calls for ‘digital detox’, and emphasising an over-reliance on phones. I emphasised that the ‘gold standard’ of going screen-free for 30 days (although other options were offered), does not really engage with the fact that digital and social media is now embedded into our lives and can be a force for good. When the O2 network had a major outage, I was questioned on whether we’re over-reliant on our phones, and the Independent questioned whether we are phone zombies, and I emphasised the many ways that we use our phones as maps, as diaries, as notebooks and as to-do lists – and that as times change, we need to listen to how others are using technology in ways that we may struggle to imagine. 

Dr Bex Lewis

In the past week, Ofcom released a report, which gave a sense of what children are spending their time on. The key findings finishes with a comment that parents are becoming more concerned about internet use, but ‘becoming less likely to moderate their child’s activities’, which would seem to reflect that the fear generated around children and screens leaves parents feeling incapable of managing it. Within my book, I highlighted the need for ‘conversation, conversation, conversation’ between parents and children, and this was picked up in the Science and Technology Committee Report, where I emphasised that trust and open dialogue are the key tools for helping children have a healthy relationship with screens. Recent research by Orben and Przybylski combined datasets of over 300,000 people, and found that, once other factors were accounted for, the impact of screen time on young people's mental health was minimal, the same as regularly eating potatoes.

There have been concerns about screen ‘addiction’, disquiet about over-sharing by parents, especially with ‘start of term’ front-door photos, worries that shortform text is making us less intelligent, and concerns about data that is being collected on us by social media companies (including via smart technology). Stories such as WhatsApp recently limiting forwarding in India on its platform, and the questions being asked of Instagram amid growing concerns over suicide and self-harm among teenagers, highlight the need for technology companies to do their part. These are important questions to ask, but alongside this, there needs to be questions about the impact of austerity, the culture of fear that keeps children inside, and other factors that mean that technology is a safe space to go to, as well as a recognition of the need for digital literacy for children, parents, and wider society.

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