This week, I held a Westminster Hall debate on addictive technology. The aim of the debate was to start a discussion about the use of personal technology, such as smartphones, the apps they run, the social media they allow us to access, and the increasing evidence that these technologies are designed to be addictive and that over exposure can lead to social and mental health issues.
You only have to get on a bus, sit in a restaurant, or walk down the street to see how engrossed we have all become with our smartphones. Yes, they make day to day tasks easier and they allow us to connect with family and friends across the world, but are they increasingly stopping us from connecting with people right in front of us?
Over the last few years, there has been growing evidence that the design of smartphones and apps are intended to encourage consistent use. Recently, former app designers have spoken out about the effort that goes into making every screen “maximally addicting” and senior figures in the tech industry have revealed that they limit screen time for their own children.
In US, studies have shown that young people who spent more time on social media and electronic devices such as smartphones were more likely to report mental health issues than adolescents who spent less time on such platforms.
In Scotland, we have also seen increasing research that not only are our young people spending more time with such devices, but that higher levels of exposure can result in social and health complications.
The Scottish Government’s SALSUS study which looks at the lifestyle trends of school children has shown that some of the most common weekly leisure activities were associated with using technology, with non-technology enabled activities lower down the list.
Research by the mental health foundation has also shown that among young people in Scotland, 30% say social media is driving them to feel socially isolated.
Despite their ubiquity, we still know relatively little about the potential health effects of overuse of smartphones and apps. Amazingly, the iPhone only recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, so we simply haven’t been using these devices for long enough to fully understand any negative impact.
I think the big tech companies owe their consumers a duty of care. That’s why in my debate, I called on the Government to look at setting up a fund to collect contributions from technology companies to research and understand our relationships with their products and to help mitigate any negative effects. That fund could be used for everything from smartphone addiction, to combatting online abuse and bullying.
I am as guilty as anyone for being constantly on my phone, and I would never advocate giving up smartphones completely, however I think we owe it to the next generation to learn more about the impact our devices are having on us and start thinking about how we can keep viewing them as useful tools instead of feeling captured by them.