I gave an interview this week about children and videogames and in it I sensationally described ‘screen-time’ as the first digital pandemic which constitutes nothing less than an expanding public health problem. In someways I was reacting to a repeating concern questioners have about games and childhood. The media, as I’ve said many many times (as have many many other) perpetuate public anxiety among parents about the ‘potential’ harm videogames cause which is broadly based on scientific claims.
Let me take a swipe at science for a moment. I mean they are totally asking for it right? Imagine for a second that a clash of theories and ideas exists between artisans and scientists. Not too hard to imagine is it? and if you’re still not convinced … why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? To get to the other… eh? Hang on… You get my point, science is not to be trusted absolutely and of course can claim vast amounts of ‘crazy’ themselves. One of the most alarming was (and still is) giving children electro-shock ‘therapy’ because the daydream too much. Thanks science, but just because you invent a therapy clearly does not mean you also found an actual problem and as an artisan I’m of such free will as to find some of the methods being used to demonize games (and build an even bigger therapy industry) suspect.
But there is a digital pandemic. We see it everyday and it demonstrates how little interest and emphasis there is on public policy and education on dealing with it. While it might not be as physically destructive as passing round Benson & Hedges to adolescents, screen time is treated very much like gambling. We know it is a serious social problem for families and individuals, but it’s not as important as other things like buying fancy new fighter-jets.
The big social difference is that ‘screen-time’ is notionally free and doesn’t require betting in terms of wining and losing money. However, like gambling technology doesn’t favour the punter but the owner of the networks, devices and software that ‘screen timers’ use, just like card tables and race-tracks. The amount of time people spend using ‘screen time’ is much more important than focusing on individual applications of that screen time. In a way, we are more worried about smoking effects in the home than we might be in public spaces like trains, schools or cinemas. The concern about ‘screen time’ is almost the inverse of common public heath issues such as smoking or gambling.
As I said today, there has been a call for a more robust and cohesive approach to media education, which is going to be no less of a long hard slog than convincing people that gambling or driving when tired has experienced. And let us not be coy about the deadly effects of screen-time. We are seeing plenty of social issues related to individual use of media (trolling, prank calls, bullying) as well as people using their phone while driving with fatal results. We are beginning to see some efforts to raise awareness of screen time, but like smoking was in the 1950s the companies profiting cannot be allowed to self-regulate the solution, or co-opt selected areas of medical science to rebuke public concerns.
It makes for interesting conversation, perhaps even a topic for a PBL class:
Should we be concerned about the screen time and public heath: and what should be done about it.
This is the essentially the popular media-proposition that was leveled at film, television, video recordings, the Internet and videogames … except now the device in your pocket can do all of this. I can be a weapon of mass: consumption; consumerism; communication; destruction; deviation; deprivation and much more … I am sure you could create an A-Z of the potential issues to public heath and civic society that ‘screen time’ presents — and there are now very very few devices which exclusively play videogames.