Outpaced by technology

A provocation paper


Dr Amy Orben, Research Fellow, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge


Digital technology companies declare that they want to “move fast and break things”. Progress is supposed to be rapid, and the inevitable mistakes that happen along the way can be cleaned up afterwards.

But what if certain technological innovations harm children? A broken childhood is not something that can be cleaned up afterwards by technology companies. It might not even be possible to rectify at all. Society needs to rapidly recognise if a new technology is causing harm and stop such an innovation in its tracks. But can we? Witnessing the nature of recent debates about technology, the answer is most probably ‘no’.

While there are multiple factors that hold back our ability to react assertively to technological change, one stands out as especially important — speed. We need to react quickly to new technologies: once they have been adopted widely, change and regulation become difficult. Rapid action is therefore a key component of effective technology-focused intervention. While our slow response to new technologies has not yet caused any major problems, this might be because a truly harmful technology has not yet crossed our path. It is far from certain that recent digital developments are harming children; the evidence is not clear, and the debate in this area is ferocious. Yet technological adoption is accelerating, meaning that technologies are becoming entrenched at increasingly rapid rates, and digitalisation is affecting ever more areas of life. We should not be preparing for if a harmful technology gets developed but for when one does.

We need to accelerate scientific research into new technologies to ensure we can intervene when confronted with a potentially harmful innovation. Two approaches to support acceleration stand out as especially worthwhile. Firstly, if we are concerned about digital technologies’ effects on children, we need to take the perspective of the children themselves when considering technologies. This means experiencing and accounting for the very nuanced and diverse types of technology uses that children engage in, instead of taking a more predominant, simplistic and generalised point of view. Secondly, we need to campaign for policy that allows researchers to obtain the data sources they need to answer such nuanced questions. Taking a child’s perspective to technological innovation, and advocating for the scientific and data infrastructure necessary to do so, are therefore two approaches that would promote our ability to safeguard childhood in an increasingly digitalised world.

Needing to move fast

New technologies quickly become integrated into society, and into individuals’ lives. Once a technology becomes integrated, it is increasingly difficult to remove or alter. To give a (oversimplified) example, when cars were first invented it would have been relatively easy to diversify their propulsion methods or limit their use altogether.[i] Soon after widespread adoption, however, and especially once we knew that they were harming our environment and health, it became impossible to substantially change their design or use. The world economy had adapted to this specific technology and removing it would have been hugely disruptive: oil was important for government stability, shops had moved outside of city centres and locations of homes had shifted as car travel accommodated longer distances. There was, and is, no clear way back.

Arguably this is also true for social media, a technology that is now widely adopted and the effects of which are still unclear. While small changes can still be made (like removing counts of ‘likes on Instagram’[ii]), these alterations seem like attempts to try and patch things up on the go. There is no real way back now; there is little possibility to remove or significantly adjust the technology, as too many people use and depend on it.

There is therefore only a small time-window of opportunity to implement substantial changes to new technologies, but once scientific consensus is reached this time window has often passed. While scientific consensus is — by design — difficult to obtain and a slow process, we need to have a focused conversation about how evidence could be provided faster. This is especially pertinent, because technological adoption is accelerating and the time-window before a technology is entrenched is therefore shortening. With more widespread data and code sharing, transparent practices and real-time collaboration there are now methods that speed up scientific work.[iii] Yet we should also focus on improved approaches to considering technologies, as they too can accelerate our understanding. One of these approaches is taking the child’s perspective when examining technology use.

Taking the child’s perspective

Conversations about childhood in the 21st century would miss the mark if they fail to consider digital technologies. Much of childhood is now mediated through digital devices: homework is done on the computer, grandparents are skyped, TV programmes are watched with parents and friends are messaged over social media platforms. These activities do not occur at isolated times during the day but play a continual part in the lives of children. They shape what they do, and how they do things. Yet the vast majority of public, policy and academic conversation is centred around screen time: a generalised and simplistic measure of how much time is spent with digital screens.

75 years ago ‘time’ spent on a new technology like television could have still been an appropriate measure when considering the effects of this technological innovation. Television or radio hosted quite uniform content and activities. In the present day, however, time spent on a smartphone screen could entail playing games, chatting to friends, reading horror stories, watching movies, listening to the radio, doing sudokus, starting some mindfulness meditation or thousands of other activities. By talking about screen time we are assuming these activities all have the same effect on the child user. It is obvious that this is not the case.

The focus on generic amounts of technology use via screen time has led much scientific evidence to be relatively uninterpretable. Large reviews of the evidence have found that there is a small negative correlation between screen time and well-being in children.[iv],[v] This correlation is however so small that screen time only accounts for less than 1% of the variance in population well-being.[vi] The small negative correlations found show that if you take the average across a very diverse population of children, and the average across all their diverse types of technology use, the effects are only very small. By taking technology use as an average, however, it is unclear whether there are certain types of technologies, or types of uses, that are disproportionately negatively or positively affecting children. By considering screen time, we are losing the important resolution necessary to actually understand child technology use.

We need to take a more child-like perspective: inquiring into the many diverse ways technologies are used and incorporating this understanding into our measurement of their effects. This is easier said than done, as most adults either do not use certain new technologies at all, or use them in very different ways to children. Taking a child’s perspective is therefore a step outside of a comfort zone. Yet doing just this could allow the concept of screen time, and with it the generalised approach to child technology use, to be rightfully retired.

The value of data access

A more nuanced approach to technology use, which takes into account something more diverse than screen time, is however currently very difficult to implement. In past decades, researchers and stakeholders could shadow children and collect information about what they do throughout the day and then relate this to outcomes of interest. Now, extremely detailed data about what children are doing during many hours of online engagement gets collected, but they are stored on the servers of technology companies.

With data being proprietary, they become largely inaccessible to those public-facing researchers wanting to understand technology effects at scale. Researchers therefore have to make do with measuring technology use in crude ways: for example by asking children, adolescents or parents to estimate how much time they spend on certain technologies. Such barriers lead to investigations focused on time spent using technologies, even though questions about content (e.g. self-harm images), behaviour (e.g. selfie-taking) or platforms (e.g. algorithmic classification) might be much more important inquiries. It is therefore unsurprising that most of our conversation is still focused on screen time, as there is little opportunity to examine other aspects of technology use at a large scale.

Ensuring that there are ethical and transparent ways for public-facing researchers to access data about online activities is crucial in a time when increasing amounts of activities are done online. While the burgeoning numbers of researchers employed directly by technology companies have access to such data to fine-tune their products, public knowledge is curtailed. Data access will be crucial for society to fully understand the effects of these technologies, especially if we want to take a nuanced child-focused perspective. To build and support such research and data infrastructure, academia, politics, industry and users will need to work together. While this might seem a difficult task, the importance of such collaboration cannot be underestimated.


Our understanding of how children are affected by new technologies is currently outpaced by technological innovation. While there is a clear need to understand the effects of technologies early — to enable effective and successful intervention — our accrual of evidence is slow. Social media has now existed for more than a decade, and is popular around the world, but investigations completed by policy institutes[vii],[viii], think tanks[ix], medical councils[x], chief medical officers[xi], and academic researchers [iv] all agreed that there is too little evidence to support any concrete evidence-based recommendations[xii]. There are therefore very few concrete proposals about what should be done to ensure this technological innovation has a net positive impact on society.

Once a better understanding of social media is reached, however, it is unclear whether it will be of use. It might be relatively worthless, because social media has become so entrenched in society that deep-rooted change to safeguard digital childhood is impossible. We therefore need to expediate our understanding of novel technologies: taking a child’s perspective presents one of the ways to do this.

Digital technologies are diverse, hosting a wide range of activities. We currently hold a misguided assumption that their effects can be understood by studying their average effect; we discuss about screen time, failing to acknowledge how substantially different various types of technology use are. A more child-informed view, that appreciates the uniqueness of digital technology uses, would allow us to better understand whether technologies are harmful or not. It would also expediate the process necessary to reach this understanding. Yet, such an approach is currently impossible at scale because the necessary data is not made available. Scientists, policymakers, stakeholders, parents and children have to work together to create an environment where a child-focused conversation about technology is possible because the necessary data for research is available. While technology companies ‘move fast’, we will have to move even faster to safeguard society’s youngest generations growing up in a truly digital age.

The British Academy has undertaken a programme of work that seeks to re-frame debates around childhood in both the public and policy spaces and break down academic, policy and professional silos in order to explore new conceptualisations of children in policymaking. Find out more about the Childhood Policy Programme.

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[i] Collingridge, D. The social control of technology. (Frances Pinter (Publishers) Ltd., 1980).

[ii] Mosseri, A. Talk at Facebook F8. (2019).

[iii] Munafò, M. R. et al. A manifesto for reproducible science. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 0021 (2017).

[iv] Dickson, K. et al. Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: a systematic map of reviews. (2018).

[v] Orben, A. Teenagers, screens and social media: a narrative review of reviews and key studies. Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol. (2020).

[vi] Orben, A. & Przybylski, A. K. The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nat. Hum. Behav. 3, 173–182 (2019).

[vii] Frith, E. Social media and children’s mental health: a review of the evidence. (2017).

[viii] Royal Society of Public Health. #StatusOfMind. (2017).

[ix] Rossi, F. How does social media affect our happiness? Adam Smith Institute (2019). Available at: https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/how-does-social-media-affect-our-happiness. (Accessed: 9th October 2019).

[x] Viner, R., Davie, M. & Firth, A. The health impacts of screen time: a guide for clinicians and parents. (2019).

[xi] Davies, S. C., Atherton, F., Calderwood, C. & McBride, M. United Kingdom Chief Medical Officers’ commentary on ‘Screen-based activities and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing: a systematic map of reviews’. (2019).

[xii] Mahase, E. Social media: concerns over effects on teenagers are overblown and lack evidence. BMJ 365, (2019).



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