Technology has fuelled some of our greatest advances as a society, and provides countless aids for learning and creativity. But what if we’re switching off when we switch on? Moya Sarner of The Guardian talks to digital advocate and campaigner, Belinda Parmar, about technology’s seemingly unstoppable hold, and why access isn’t necessarily progress.
In Belinda Parmar’s bedroom there is a wardrobe, and inside that wardrobe there is a safe. Inside that safe is not jewellery or cash or personal documents, but devices: mobile phones, a laptop, an iPod, chargers and remote controls. Seven years ago, Parmar was the high priestess of tech empowerment. Founder of the consultancy Lady Geek, she saw it as her mission both to make tech work better for girls and women and to get more girls and women working for tech. Now she wants to talk about the damage it can cause to our mental health, to family life and to children, including her son Jedd, 11, and daughter Rocca, 10.
Parmar made her living and lived her life through these devices, so what happened to make her lock them up? Why did this tech evangelist lose her faith?
Strong women run in Parmar’s family. She tells me her mother raised her and her sister alone after separating from their father when Parmar was two (she’s now 44 and recently separated herself), while her grandmother, who had four children, ran her own business, a recruitment firm in Mile End, east London. She grew up believing anything was possible, which is why she felt driven to start Lady Geek when she was 35, after a man in a phone shop tried to sell her a pink, sparkly phone. “That was the way technology was sold and I thought: ‘This is ridiculous.’ I was so angry that I went home and started a blog,” she says.
The blog was called Lady Geek, and it launched a national conversation about sexism in the tech industry. Parmar left her job in advertising to turn it into a business, advising tech companies how to make their products better for women, and going into schools to encourage girls to go into the industry, for which she was awarded an OBE. “For me, tech was a leveller,” she says. “You didn’t need money, you didn’t need status; it was an enabler of a more equal and more diverse society. This tiny bubble that most of us lived in had been popped and that was wonderful. That still is wonderful.”
But certain aspects of her relationship with technology were not so wonderful. “I’d wake up and look at Twitter,” she says. “I had two small children, and the first thing I should have been doing was going to see the kids, but I’d be looking at Twitter.” She realised she was using social media for validation, to feed her ego. She began to think: “If technology is an enabler, why am I just using it for things I don’t like about myself?”
As her children grew up, she started to be disturbed by her son’s apparent compulsion to play video games. “Technology takes parents out of control. I can’t compete with an amazing monster, that level of dopamine. He doesn’t want to eat with us, to be with us, because it’s not as exciting,“ she says. She bought a Circle, a device that allows you to manage the whole family’s internet access, controlling which devices are online at which times and what they can view. “My son hid it,” she says. She tried to turn the wifi off, but he stood guarding it, blocking her way. She still does not know where the Circle is. “In theory,” she says, “if you’ve got compliant children, this would be perfect.” Perhaps that is why her combination to the safe, with his devices and hers, is 12 digits long.
She has reason to worry. When a friend’s 12-year-old son showed signs of being addicted to video games, Parmar at first shrugged it off. Then he refused to go to school because he wanted to play all day, and then he spent eight weeks in a psychiatric institution. “He’s 15 now. Nothing’s changed. He still won’t go to school,” she says.
Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, has spent 30 years studying technological addictions; he was the first to use that phrase in 1995, to describe “excessive person-machine relationships”. “All behaviour is on a continuum from absolutely no problems at all,” he says, “through to recreationally enjoying something, to excessively enjoying something, to problematic and then addictive and pathological at the far end. For someone to be genuinely addicted to technology, that technology has to be the single most important thing in their life – they do it to the neglect of everything else – and very few people fulfil that.”
Technology takes parents out of control. I can’t compete with…that level of dopamine
Belinda Parmar, digital advocate and campainger
He is prolific (helped, he says, by having given up his mobile phone), publishing more than 100 papers last year alone – his most recent was on Instagram addiction. But he has his doubters. “There are academics who’ll say this is complete nonsense, that if it doesn’t involve ingestion of a psychoactive substance it can’t possibly be an addiction.” To that he retorts: what about gambling? “What is good for me is the established bodies are catching up,” he says. This year, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its list of mental health conditions in ICD-11, the International Classification of Diseases.
Griffiths is careful to articulate the difference between believing that technological addictions are real, and believing that they are ubiquitous. Addiction is defined not by the amount of time spent doing the activity, but by the context in which you do it. “Parents tend to pathologise behaviour that isn’t pathological – it’s the technological generation gap,” he says. Every week, concerned parents email him to say their daughter or son is addicted to social media, and when he asks if their children do their homework and chores, take exercise and have a wide network of friends, nearly always the answer is yes. But, they say, the kids are wasting three hours a day online. “What were you doing when you were their age? Because I was watching TV for three hours a day when there were only three channels. And then there are the parents who use social media just as much as their kids, and who shouldn’t be surprised when kids end up copying exactly what they are doing.”
While it may be reassuring that few of us would qualify as addicts by Griffith’s definition, the fashion for tech detoxes, and a recent survey that found that 75% of those aged 25 to 34 feel they use their phone too much, suggests many of us remain disturbed by our increasingly entwined relationship with technology. Richard Graham, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who runs the Tech Addiction Service at London’s private Nightingale hospital, tells me: “We’re psychologically cyborgs now, whether we like it or not. We’re integrating these devices into our mental functioning, into our social and emotional lives.” He quotes Chief Justice Roberts of the US supreme court: “The proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
While Graham feels the addiction model “has its uses”, he also draws on other ways of thinking about what is going on when we can’t look away from a screen. He tells me about the student who decided to wind down one evening by playing a game of League of Legends, which would take about 40 minutes; the next time he looked at the clock, it was 5.30am. To explore this, Graham turned to flow psychology, a way of understanding the process of “getting into the zone” around a piece of work, which can be positive but can also make you lose track of space and time. This is not escapism: “A lot of gamers are thinking strategically, in a very deep way.” He is also interested in the idea of hyperfocus, which some people with ADHD experience, as “not so much a problem of not being able to concentrate, but of not being able to shift concentration”.
He was influenced, too, by the work of Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist who has been researching the relationship between people and technology for three decades. Some of the participants in her studies, he says, were so attached to their consoles that “they even found winning upsetting because it disrupts the connection with the machine. There’s a sense that they keep going because they don’t want that connection to be lost.” A psychoanalyst might compare this to the unconscious desire to be back in the womb, in a state of absolute connection.
“We’re integrating these devices into our mental functioning”
Richard Graham, child and adolescent psychologist
For young people on the brink of or enduring the horrors of adolescence, like Belinda’s son, Graham feels there could be something else going on: an identity crisis, “trying to find a place in the world of near-adults”. For these young people, games and social media aren’t just fun – they’re business. Whether they monetise their YouTube channel or not, this is a way to succeed, to harness digital capital and turn it into self-esteem. Griffiths suggests that screens might even be one of the reasons for the drop in youth crime over the past 25 years: “More youth are spending more time in front of technology, so they haven’t got time to go out and commit acquisitive crime. Being very engrossing isn’t necessarily bad.”
These experts agree that abstinence is not the way forward: instead, we need to build what they call digital resilience, and learn to use technology in a measured, controlled way. “If someone goes diving and is deeply immersed in the ocean,” Graham says, “you can’t just bring them up quickly without significant effect. So rather than talking about digital detox, we need to think about digital decompression.”
He recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics’ family media plan, which tells you how much sleep you need, and schedules a period of no-screen time an hour before bed, as well as “clean” periods in your day and clean zones in your home. “I think it can really help if everyone does it together. But adults can be more slippery than young people. They’ll say: I need my phone for work, for my alarm. Unfortunately, with adolescents, anything like that smacks of hypocrisy and is incredibly damaging.”
Young people can be responsive when adults change their own behaviour, he says. “I had quite a nice discussion with a young man and his mother. She told me she only has a Kindle, and I replied that the later models will disrupt your sleep as much as anything else. This absolutely thrilled the adolescent, who was much more willing to change his behaviour because I’d caught his mum out. And she was up for changing, too.”
Parmar realises she has to set an example. “I love technology, but my own behaviour has changed because I’m more self-aware,” she says. Hence her devices being in the safe, along with her son’s. But looking around her sunlit bedroom, I see a laptop on the desk, a tablet next to her pillow. “So your bedroom isn’t screen-free, then,” I say. She looks reflective, perhaps a little sheepish, and acknowledges that she likes to watch things on her tablet once the kids have gone to bed. She’s still figuring things out, still coming to terms with the tough decisions we all need to make if we want to be more in control of our relationship with technology.
These are the conversations Parmar wants us to have, which is why she is launching a campaign and website, TheTruthAboutTech.com (no relation to a similarly named American campaign), that will offer practical tips and a space for people to share their stories. “This is my new mission. And I tell you what: dealing with my son every day, it reminds me, this is personal. This is really personal.”
She also wants to hold to account the tech giants who are profiting from our over-engagement. She raises her voice: “I want to say, you’ve got to be more responsible. You can still make billions, but you should be thinking about how can you bring all the human values we want as a society into your products.” She is furious with Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, who last year said the company’s main competitor was not Amazon Video or YouTube, but sleep. “That is disgraceful. He should be saying: ‘My No 1 mission is to unite families in their living room around great content.’”
These companies, she says, “are the most powerful brands in the world, more powerful than governments. Imagine if a government had said that. They’re digital dictators, and part of this campaign is getting them to stand up and be accountable.” And what does that mean? It means rethinking Snapchat’s “streaks”, which track how long users have been in daily communication, keeping them checking in for fear of losing out; it means rethinking YouTube’s “Up next” queue, which automatically plays video after video; it means addiction ratings on video games. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
How does she feel about her previous work, spreading the benefits of tech with no mention of its dangers? “I think I was naive,” she says. “I didn’t know enough. I feel good about the fact that I got more women into technology, but if I did it again, I would do it in a way that is more realistic, balancing the good and the bad.”
I can’t stop thinking about that safe. After all, a safe is built to protect our most precious possessions – or to lock up our most dangerous weapons. It feels extraordinary that something so everyday, so anodyne as a mobile phone could have such unnerving value, such threatening power. With their influence and wealth, why would the tech giants change from digital dictators to enlightened despots?
Parmar believes commercial pressures will compel them – two influential Apple shareholders are already threatening to sue the company for not limiting screen time. Graham proposes a darker alternative: “We could edge towards the equivalent of a parasite that drains its host so much that it kills itself, along with the host.” He doesn’t mean that these technology companies and their products will actually kill us, of course. “But if it’s this relentless, the so-called attention economy will fall down, because we’ll all be too exhausted.”
Build your digital resilience
Four tips from addiction expert Richard Graham.
- Be united as a family. Use the American Academy of Pediatrics family media plan – but remember: “The whole family needs to buy into this.”
- Plan activities outside the home. Go to the cinema, for example. “It’s a shared experience, and there’s a narrative to stoke the imagination.”
- Vary your digital diet. “People get stuck in very simple diets of media consumption, using the same platforms, games and messaging apps. Using different platforms is important – it’s about moving between them and having a sense of ease of being able to do something, then stop and move on.”
- Live healthily. Sleep enough, eat well, drink enough water and do some physical activity every day.