I don’t know about you, but over the course of the past year, my relationship with my mobile phone has changed. I must confess that I’ve morphed from being the sort of person who might leave my phone in the car and struggle to find it for a few days, to being someone who invariably checks the headlines on waking first thing in the morning. What is the latest Government announcement? How are the death stats today? Who is arguing for what now?
Speaking to friends, family, and colleagues, I don’t believe that I’m alone in my newfound obsession. But what if all these gripping news stories, and associated ‘clickbait’, are actually distorting our view of the pandemic? And what if – in the process of presenting us with ‘news’ – media outlets are somehow contributing to our ill health?
It might not be terribly compelling for the media to announce: ‘We have vaccinated many, including the most vulnerable; hospital admissions and deaths are coming down; there is no need to check the news tomorrow.’ No. Rather, the narrative will shift: ‘Dangerous new variant emerged in Bristol’, ‘evidence of virus spreading quickest in schoolchildren’, ‘possibility that we’ll have to restrict international travel for years’. After all, dramatic headlines lead to ‘clicks’ and ‘shares’.
One concern is that it becomes increasingly difficult for scientists to take a pragmatic and moderate line when the extreme views garner far more public attention. Sensible voices are drowned out, which must surely be to the public’s detriment. For example, having been warned relentlessly of the dangers of Long Covid, how many parents will hesitate to send their children back to school?
Besides the issues which result from believing extreme views (influencing the public’s anxiety and future willingness to partake in activities crucial to health), there are the isolated harms of increased screen time. We have, as a society, embraced our devices as a means to communicate, work, or study. But, have we fully understood the health implications? This year, my sleep has felt less refreshing, my exercise levels have reduced, and my concentration has deteriorated. There is too much news to absorb, too much that’s compelling on this little screen. And it’s undoubtedly affecting my health.
More than any other group, however, I worry about the impact of excessive screen time on children. As a parent, I don’t believe that it’s possible to put a young person behind a screen for several months, and expect them to emerge unscathed. We must expect that lockdown measures and school closures will have caused the youngest in society significant, lasting harms, affecting their physical, social, educational, and emotional wellbeing.
Prior to the pandemic, I already had misgivings about the impact of screens on developing children. At the risk of sounding judgemental, too many parents seem to use devices as a digital babysitter, a mute button for their children.
I wonder – if given the early experiences of young people today – whether the genius of Einstein would have emerged? Or the inventiveness of Da Vinci? If as a society, we hope to produce obedient lemmings, who are fearful of what is outside their front door, right now, we are certainly doing all the right things. If we want to promote originality, innovation, confidence, and brilliance; I fear we are not.
It’s becoming essential that we take steps to prevent ourselves (particularly children) from becoming enslaved to new technologies. The cognitive development of the young is fundamental to their lifelong health and achievements – their brains and bodies must be allowed to flourish.
Indeed, I find myself wondering if one of the most significant threats to our future health may not come from infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, obesity, or shortages in healthcare provision. Could there be a more insidious threat, lurking in all our homes, which will affect the next generation’s physical and mental wellbeing for the rest of their lives? Having been ‘muted’ by their devices, inexperienced in social skills, fearful of the outside world, unable to take risks, lacking in creativity, incapable of physical exertion, what will remain of the human condition? What of health?
Perhaps this all sounds a little dystopian to you, a little too ‘Brave New World’? But, I do wonder, might this modern day ‘soma’ be poisoning us all?
Dr Katie Musgrave is a newly-qualified GP in Plymouth and quality improvement fellow for the South West