I have written extensively about how technology breaks boundaries, both tangible and intangible. But is there capacity for this to expand beyond our imagination? And is this for the good or for the bad?

Credibility breaker

I read an interesting article on theatlantic.com which provided a unique view on this debate.

The article proposes that technology can be powerful, but it isn’t inherently good or bad. Just as a hammer isn’t inherently good or bad; what matters is how it’s used. Are we using the tool to build or to destroy?

Technology can be a weapon against democracy. Fake news, fabricated for virality, spreads harmful propaganda at the speed of a share. Governments use technology to violate the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Bad actors have influenced elections and broken into the US Defence Department through email inboxes.

A worker for good

The article adds that if civic engagement fuels democracy, technology can be a saviour, too.

Technology helped the US to register more voters in 2016 than ever before in American history. Technology has empowered outsider candidates to raise funds, compete, and win against elite party heavyweights.

Further, open data policies and portals provide free, up-to-date access to valuable information about communities and government, and citizens are using it to build businesses and to hold government accountable.

**Sparking a revolution **

Technology held a particular political leader very accountable. Unhappy with then President Hosni Mubarak’s leadership, the people of Egypt took a stand in 2011 and organised a revolution which saw the start of the Arab Spring.

Large groups of people were mobilised using technology such as WhatsApp and Facebook to arrange gatherings or campaigns against government-held positions. When the police were making their way towards these positions, the people were against forewarned by the same messaging services and social networks.

Now Egypt is considering changing its laws regarding social media in the fear that a similar mobilisation can take place in the future.

A report on edition.cnn.com points out that  a draft bill circulated in Egyptian newspapers would require users to register with the government to access sites including Twitter and Facebook. Successful applicants would receive a login linked to their national ID. Unauthorised use could result in prison sentences and heavy fines.

A politician said the move would facilitate state surveillance over social networks in Egypt by making users enroll in a government-run electronic system that will grant them permission to access Facebook. The same politician added that the reforms were necessary to combat terrorism and incitement against the state.

A human rights activist group labelled the move as shocking. This will have a big impact by controlling what people say and don’t say. Government issued IDs are linked to a plethora of activities including driving, banking, and medical services so the government will have much more information about users’ whereabouts.

Crossing the line

While technology is unquestionably a force of good; as we have seen, it can have detrimental effects as well.

The above deals with the dangers of technology at a high level, but are there dangers at a lower level? A recent article on cbc.ca suggests that there is.

The article points out that a buzzing phone, glowing tablet or the sound of a favourite video game can be a powerful temptation many can’t resist.

Now new research shows the cravings we have to connect to our devices can, in fact, be a real addiction.

Talking to cbc.ca, Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, said that 75% of people now say they can reach their phones 24 hours a day without having to move their feet.  He added that the average person spends 3 hours and 42 minutes staring at screens each day, and that number is rising.

“Most people generally underestimate how long they are on their devices. I include myself in this category and I can point to several apps that can be used to track actual screen time use,” said Alter.

Alter explains the success of social media platforms are that they have many ingredients that make it irresistible — the biggest being that a reward is within reach but yet never guaranteed, much like gambling.

Arrested development

Fascinated by the article so far? The next part of the article really hit home and got me asking questions.

The article pointed out that while it’s too early to know the long-term impact of our technological consumption, Alter says there is evidence that children who spend a lot of time on screens early in life have language delays and are not skilled communicators.

He feels that a lot of nuances are lost when a person who would normally use precise language to communicate something funny like LOL when texting can’t factor in facial expressions or a lilt in a laugh.

“Everything is a cue. And we don’t even think about that if we’re skilled communicators who have spent a lot of time face to face. But if your early use of communication is spent LOL’ing and you don’t acquire those nuances, it’s very hard to acquire them later on,” said Alter.

When it comes to toddlers, Atler referred to the quote, never get high on your own supply and suggests the best way to maintain distance from the “drug” of screen time is to keep them away from your family.

Further investigation

While the effects of technology on our children may still be a matter of debate, it is worth further investigation.

A recent report on the irishexaminer.com points out that UCD professor Mary Aiken, advisor to the Europol European Cybercrime Centre, has researched in depth the developmental impact of technology on children — from infant to teenage years.

Dr Aiken – who has advised Interpol, the FBI and the White House on cyber-criminality – believes it’s the Government’s responsibility to protect children from the harmful side effects of technology.

“The State has a duty in terms of actually reaching out, educating, informing, and ultimately protecting children,” she said, “we need structured guidelines for how parents should introduce children to technology and how they can address negative behaviours from an informed scientific perspective.”

Quoting the Canadian forensic psychologist Michael Seto, Dr Aiken added that the world is living through one of largest unregulated social experiments of all time with regard to technology and developmental impact.

Addiction, lack of empathy, and poor development of communication skills are just some of the side effects which children are currently at risk of due to technology overuse.

What age is the right age?

Dr Aiken believes the EU Government needs to invest in ongoing research and initiatives to help the current generation of children grow up safely alongside technology.

“We really need theories of stages of cyber cognitive development. If we think about child development in a real-world context, we have theoretical guidelines; what age a child should be crawling, picking up building blocks. My argument is we don’t have equivalent guidelines in an age of technology. What age is it appropriate to give a tech device to a young child? The American Academy of Paediatrics doesn’t recommend exposing an infant to any screen before the age of two — an example of something not widely known by parents,” said Dr Aiken.

I am not against technology. But we need to know the good side of the debate, as well as the bad side, to fully appreciate the challenge we face.