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Three different perspectives on how the online world has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives

In the ESOF2022 mini-symposium organized by the Social Resilience & Security programme, international experts with a background in psychology, philosophy, and law discussed how the online world is related to adolescent mental health issues, moral and emotional awareness and children’s rights. In three short summaries we take you through three different perspectives on how the online world has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives.

The effects of digital tech use on adolescent mental health: what is the scientific evidence?

Over the years, concerns about young people’s mental health shifted from the radio, to television, to social media use and smartphones. Although social media and digital technologies are really unique in how they are individualized and how much they impact our daily lives, technology panics are inherently cyclical. When we try to understand the increase of mental-health issues among adolescents, is the blame on digital tech use actually scientifically valid?

Over the past 20 years, there has been a substantial increase in mental health disorders among adolescents. In fact, the prevalence of mental health issues has shifted to 1 out of 6 six children in the UK. That means 5 children in every classroom will likely suffer from mental health problems. 

Looking at scientific evidence over the last few years, studies often show that the correlation between screen time and adolescent well-being is negative. However, what do these correlations actually tell us? Interestingly, Dr. Amy Orben compared social media use with wearing glasses. In her talk, she states that ‘’The correlation between well-being and wearing glasses was actually more negative than the correlation between well-being and using more technologies’’, illustrating the insignificance of such findings. The link between screen time and well-being found in scientific studies is indeed very small and does not tell us about causal effects. Thus, to understand more about whether social media is causing a decrease in life satisfaction, or vice-versa, we need to look at longitudinal studies (in which scientists collect data from participants multiple times over a longer period of time). 

In one of such studies of Orben’s group, they found that if a person uses more social media in one year, it does predict a decrease in life satisfaction a year later. But the opposite was also the case: if someone felt worse in one year, it also predicted an increase in social media use one year later. This means that these impacts might be bi-directional. In other words, the effects of digital technology use are not a one way street of technologies influencing us. Indeed, our own moods could also be influencing how much technology we use in a certain period of time. 

‘The effects of digital technology use are not a one way street of technologies influencing us. Indeed, our own moods could also be influencing how much technology we use in a certain period of time.’

Furthermore, the link between digital technologies and adolescent well-being is probably very highly individual. Actually, Orbens studies show that social media does not decrease life satisfaction or does not predict a decrease of life satisfaction throughout the whole period of adolescence. Instead, there are specific windows during adolescent development, that vary by gender, in which social media use might impact life satisfaction in the long term. This could be the case because adolescence is identified as a unique period of cognitive, social and brain development, which continuously impacts how we see ourselves and how influenced we are by our peers. Hence, researchers in the fields of psychological- and brain development agree on the assumption that there are certain times during this developmental process in which social media use might influence us more.

What we can learn from this? In short, there is still a lack of evidence for the link between screen time and mental health of adolescents. We can not give concrete screen use guidelines yet, because the impact is so unclear, bi-directional, highly individual and dependent on the window of development. Therefore, the development of online environment requires interdisciplinarity, which also means bringing in the tech people, private sectors, parents and adolescents themselves. Joining forces is essential to reach the next steps in translating science into action oriented policy and recommendation. 

The effects of the online world on adolescents: what can we learn from a philosophical insight?

Life online and offline have become totally integrated, especially for adolescents. As a consequence, the borderline between private and public spheres is blurring. This non-transparency is makes it increasingly difficult to know how one is expected to behave in a given situation. In other words, the complexity of online life is making our moral and emotional awareness cloudy. With the integration of the online world in our daily lives rapidly developing, online violence and online transgressive behaviour also increase. In fact, one out of six adolescents does not feel safe online. For this reason, taking a critical look at human agency* in the online world is becoming increasingly important. Here, Dr. Jan Sleutels gives us some philosophical insights.

*Human agency: Modern society is organized in terms of an idealized model of how people  think, act and engage with each other. This model is at the heart of our political, educational and legal systems, among others. One part of the model is a cognitive and moral profile for individual agents: what you as an individual can reasonably be expected to know, to think and to do in a given situation. The second part of the model specifies how society should be organized to make it possible for individuals to behave in appropriate ways, typically as a liberal democracy with free access to information and action possibilities. 

In the first 15 years of the Internet, online activities more or less followed the traditional model: people used the Internet as just another a tool to achieve their ‘real-life’ ends. They were in charge of deciding, among other things, which online services they want to use, how and when to use them and for which purposes to use them. 

As a result of dramatic changes of the internet’s architecture, such as the explosive growth in the production and processing of digital data trails and the use of smart algorithms, internet services are no longer functioning as mere tools for people to use as they choose. Instead, the 'tools' are now also making decisions for us, deciding which information we are given, which choices we are offered, and so on. For instance, as we engage with the Internet for purposes of our own, we also generate data trails that are used by third parties for purposes that are not ours at all, with effects on people we don't even know, without any conscious intention on our part.

In other words, for the individual using digital technologies today, it is impossible to know exactly what they are doing, for which reasons, or what its consequences might be. Nor can they be reasonably expected to know this. The internet’s architecture does not adequately support the traditional model of what we are expected to know and do. 

 ‘The traditional model of human agency expects us to know things and to do things on the Internet that are quite beyond our reach.’

These developments make it difficult to understand online transgressive behaviour. Current explanations of transgressive behaviour typically rely on the traditional model of human agency, but much of our online behaviour today does not seem to comply with that model.

The model remains useful for understanding only a specific range of online transgression such as cybercrime, hacking, trolling and phishing. There we have individual perpetrators with malign intentions, deliberately using the internet as a tool for achieving their purposes. In these cases the so-called online disinhibition effect, one of the main paradigms in media psychology today, readily explains how persons can be ‘disinhibited’ on the internet by features such as anonymity, lack of bodily engagement, absence of socio-emotional feedback and failure to activate empathic powers. The effect is thought to be strongest in adolescents whose inhibitory control systems are not yet fully functional, even in offline environments.

The bulk of our online behaviour, however, including most forms of online transgression, is not driven by malign intentions at all, and is not based on knowledge of possible consequences. Most of our online behaviour is morally opaque, in the sense that we simply don’t know exactly what we are doing. Think of sharing content online that you would not normally (offline) have shared with just about anyone. Think of filter bubbles and online nudges, or of internet services that track your behaviour and then use this information to influence others. These activities are not intended to cause harm and not really focused on anyone in particular, and yet they sometimes do cause some group of people to incur some sort of harm or damage. 

In theory it should be possible to restore the traditional model’s grip on reality. One way is try to repair the individual’s cognitive and moral profile: educate the public about digital technology, and raise awareness about the risks involved. Another way is to try to change the internet’s architecture to support rational agency again.

Restoring the traditional model is quite difficult, however. Take in mind, for instance, the EU’s cookie policy (part of GDPR), which requires all providers of online services to ask explicit consent from users for collecting and processing information about their online behaviour. The idea is that this policy makes the internet a safer and more transparent environment by aligning it with the traditional model of rational agency. By asking for their consent, users are supposed to carefully consider the consequences of their online activity based on detailed information about online platforms. But does the cookie policy really work this way for you?

How are children’s rights related to the development of the online world?

From a children’s rights perspective, it is crucial to focus on the fact that it is relevant for children to be present in the online environment. The online world is a child’s environment as much as it is for adults. Indeed, instead of only fearing them, we should actually embrace digital technologies and the online world. Having access the online environment is key for the purposes of fully enjoying children’s rights, including gathering information, educating oneself, becoming independent and also relating to peers. At the same time, the digital environment still comes with threats. It opens up new ways to perpetrate violence against children and violate other rights. How can we respect and protect children’s rights, revolving around human dignity, equality and children’s best interests, whether they are online or offline? 

When it comes to children’s rights, there are two core messages coming out of a legal framework that is embraced by most countries in the world. First, we have to respect the right of every child to be protected against the negative impact of digital technologies on their development, among others trough violence and exploitation, and their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Simply put, the core elements in international children’s right underscore the need to facilitate a safe online environment. Secondly, we have to support children in developing well, providing and improving children’s access to education and information. This also relates to play and participation, as well as to time and room to play. Importantly, we all know that play nowadays takes places both in the online and offline world. 

‘We should be constantly looking for the right balance between protection and participation or opportunities. Not only governments but also the private sector, including tech companies, need scientific insights to make the right choices and to guide states and communities in the right direction.’

With these two core messages in mind, we should be constantly looking for the right balance between protection and participation or opportunities. Not only governments but also the private sector, including tech companies, need scientific insights to make the right choices and to guide states and communities in the right direction. 

Furthermore, we should acknowledge that certain groups of children have certain challenges that we need to address when finding a balance between protection and participation. For instance, take a look the digital divide that UNICEF identified in 2017, which is described as the new divide between those who have access to digital technologies and those who have not. Especially the Covid-19 pandemic clearly showed that this digital divide really exists and needs to be addressed in order to protect all children’s rights. To illustrate, children with little or no access to digital technologies really suffered throughout the pandemic, which took away their opportunities to go on with their education, options to find information relating to their health and chances to relate to their peers. Let alone adolescents, who are at the cutting edge of digital and social media environments, making the right to participate in the online world even more important for this specific group. 

Another example showing the importance of acknowledging challenges, is the group of children belonging to the LGBTQI+ community. Just as any other child, LGBTQI+ children use the internet, however, they could face hate speech on the internet. Sometimes they are not safe. How do we offer protection to these children? These examples require specific responses, also in our engagement with states and law. As matter of fact, governments need help with this, as they are often not capable of drafting the right policies on their own. This is where science comes in. How can science help to set up and improve children’s rights?

Finally, when it comes to digital technology, there is a disconnect between children and adults. We, as adults, parents, lawyers and scientists, should constantly seek for opportunities to connect between the different generations, both in online offline world. Ultimately, developments of the online world are not only a matter of well-being or agency, this disconnection is also a child’s right matter. It is something that should be governed by human rights that revolve around dignity, equality and the children’s best interests. 

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