Dr Bex Lewis investigates digital fear, presenting a balanced view of the risks against the benefits.
Fears about ‘the digital’ are widespread, particularly around questions of privacy, addiction, bullying, loss of social skills, peer pressure, and the loss of time with ‘real people’. With every new technological advance, including the printing press, the telephone, and the television, fears have been raised. These are known as ‘moral panics’. Frank Furedi, a sociologist, suggests that these occur when society feels unable to adapt to dramatic changes and fears a loss of control. This is not helped by the fact that the media tend to generalize from single instances of harm, implying that we are all ‘at risk’.
For newspapers, ‘fear sells’: it grabs our attention and encourages us to read the stories, maximizing those things that we already have qualms about. Insights into the many solutions that are available are not provided, and attention is often re-directed away from less ‘glamorous’ areas where changes could be effectively made. Newspapers love ‘averages’, with one heavy user distorting figures, creating panic. We need to understand that correlations in data don’t necessarily imply causation – just because people who play video games can be aggressive doesn’t mean that video gaming causes aggression. Those who are naturally aggressive may be attracted to particular types of video game, or there may be other factors involved.
The journalist Dan Gardner, in his 2008 book Risk declared that although all generations have faced risk, ours is the most terrified. History demonstrates that there have always been doom-mongers, particularly in the press, but we are ‘the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.’ This risk-averse culture, combined with the moral panics that face all new technological developments, lead to many learning to fear the digital, rather than to understand it, therefore not embracing the opportunities that it offers. We need to understand which fears are constructive, and act upon them, and which are ‘unreasoning fears’ or ‘moral panics’. The media, for example, focuses heavily upon ‘stranger danger’, both within the physical world and online, although statistics demonstrate the odds are very low. In consequence, many restrictions are placed upon children’s lives, both in terms of their physical and their online freedoms, and the risk taking that was seen as a necessary part of child development in the past is not possible to achieve.
Tanya Byron, in her 2008 government report, wanted parents to consider that what we view as a risk may also present new opportunities, such as making new friends from online contacts. Risk does not automatically mean harm, so we need to be careful about when and how we intervene, to ensure that children are encouraged to engage positively online rather than fear the digital spaces. History demonstrates that we’ll stop ‘seeing’ technology as something separate, and it will just be a part of our lives. As Jessica Clark, a media strategist and senior fellow for two US communications technology research centres, puts it:
History is a progression of older people tut-tutting over the media production and consumption habits of those younger than them and holding tightly to the belief that the technologies of communication they grew up with are intellectually or culturally superior.
We each find new ways to use technology for good and for bad. We will find ways to live with it, and life will go on. Although it is the early enthusiasts who bring us new technologies, it is only once the general population looks past the risks and sees the potential for everyday application that technologies go mainstream. Didn’t we all laugh at the idea of owning a mobile phone, and don’t we now all check ‘wallet, phone, keys’, as we manage our lives using a device more powerful than the rocket that went to the moon?
The digital offers so many positive opportunities, including global connectivity, opportunities to collaborate and develop upon past learning, utilize the power of big data to answer questions previously unachievable, and the curation of information on a scale unimaginable before. There are opportunities for impacting upon social justice (so long as we’re not reduced to clicktivism), to challenge the social quo, to access knowledge from a wide range of perspectives, to challenge bullies by using the power of quick response to indicate where behaviour is unacceptable. We can use technology to start conversations – including across the generations, rather than to stop them, keep ourselves entertained, make more flexible plans, discover new local knowledge, develop improved hand-eye coordination through games, or remove the bodily restrictions that many with disabilities experience. Companies using social media for marketing, if listening, can take advantage of opportunities for increased personalization, conversation, and the ability to learn what your community wants, and respond in a timely and appropriate manner.
One element that is seen as positive for teenagers is the opportunity to experiment with their identities. This can be positive, but with all things, if we look to the extremes, this can either be used well, or negatively – and those extremes bring problems such as we see presented by anonymous users online. We cannot be blasé about ‘the digital’. With such opportunities come responsibilities, and we need to question much that has become commonly associated with digital culture, including giving our information away without questioning, not understanding who owns/shares our data, or how algorithms are calculated. Critical analysis of our behaviours is important, including how much time we spend online, especially as the digital becomes more embedded within our lives, but not assuming ‘addiction’ when very few are truly addicted. We need to question if we are offering the chance for new ways of living, or whether we are further embedding entrenched attitudes, and widening discriminatory gaps. ‘The digital’ is not risk free, but then it is a part of ‘real’ life, and life is not risk free: and we need to partake in life wholeheartedly.
Some of this material is derived from Raising Children in a Digital Age, Lion Hudson, 2014. Used with permission.