Childhood could be the biggest casualty of society’s obsession with screens, say a team of researchers who are examining the use of the internet and digital technology.
Recently a boy aged five became the youngest person in Britain to be investigated by police for ‘sexting’.
Researchers from the international Screen Society project say that is indicative of a society seemingly obsessed with technology, with children starting to use screens as soon as they are physically able to – the ramifications of which will be felt in years to come.
Screen Society is examining how people conduct relationships through smartphones, computers and tablets and the role screens play in our day to day lives. It has conducted an extensive global survey with over 2,000 internet users across the world to paint a clear picture of how society really interacts with digital technology.
The Screen Society has coined the term ‘Screenagers’ to describe this generation which is now in constant contact with digital devices.
Professor Ellis Cashmore, visiting professor of sociology at Aston University and one of the Screen Society researchers, was shocked, but not surprised by the recent reports of a boy as young as five sexting and says we might be witnessing the disappearance of childhood as we know it.
He added: “The internet is a priceless gift for children – it is probably the greatest learning tool since the book. Children can access a world of wonder at the stroke of a keypad. But it may come with a price.”
The Screen Society team believes the internet has opened up what they call ‘a world of wonder’ for children. As soon as they learn to swipe and tap, they are involved in a creative, interactive learning environment that has no boundaries and are learning a potentially dangerous ‘transferable skill’.
Dr Kevin Dixon, from Teesside University, who is also part of the Screen Society team, said: “If a child of five has the technique to play a simple game, they can soon start exploring all over the internet.
“That transferable skill is not matched by emotional and intellectual maturity in children or even young people up to 15. They know how to share an image of themselves, but don’t understand the significance and the consequences this action can have on their well-being.”
Professor Cashmore added: “If children have access to sexual material, they seem to want to use it – even if they don’t understand it.
“There are controls, but how effective are they? The wider ramifications are going to be felt in a few years’ time and make us wonder whether childhood is the biggest casualty of Screen Society.”
The researchers also highlighted the issue of trolls – saying any internet user is potentially a troll.
Ed Sheeran came off Twitter after saying he did not understand why people dislike him so much and Harry Styles’ girlfriend Tess Ward pulled out of Instagram after fans turned against her.
But, although celebrities and politicians are easy targets, the Screen Society team are loathed to believe that the internet is awash with trolls determined to make people’s lives a misery.
Dr Dixon said: “There’s no evidence of a distinct group of users who call themselves trolls and set out to make life miserable for others. More realistically, there are individuals who get annoyed with specific people and target them for short periods of time.”
Professor Cashmore said that views are split on whether trolls are actually dangerous, or just a joke.
One respondent to the Screen Society project from Los Angeles stated: “When I read a troll comment in a discussion I’m following, I typically roll my eyes and sigh then read on. I guess I’m part of the ‘do not feed the trolls’ camp, which I attribute to growing up in the age of real life bullies whom we were taught to ignore and walk away from.”
The Screen Society team has just launched the third and final phase of its research project, asking how screens have shaped society, our lives and you. The results from the full Screen Society project will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.
People can contribute to the study here: https://teesside.