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‘If we wrap our children in digital cotton, they will not learn to cope with problems’

British professor Sonia Livingstone is one of the leading global experts on minors and technology. ‘There is little evidence of big problems in the new generations,’ she says

Sonia Livingstone
Professor Sonia Livingstone, speaking at a TED conference in Edinburgh in 2019.Ryan Lash / TED

Sonia Livingstone, a professor at the London School of Economics, is one of the world’s leading experts on minors and technology. In the last two decades, she has written 20 books and hundreds of scientific articles. “Reading just the titles of what she’s published can take an hour. And she doesn’t leave any tasks to interns. She does everything herself,” says one of her colleagues.

Livingstone advises the British government, the European Commission and Parliament and the United Nations on internet security and digital rights for minors. She navigates between the findings of recent studies and the ambiguity of a sector where evidence is scarce and where minors are given little voice. EL PAÍS spoke with Livingstone by video call from her home in London.

Question. Is there any evidence that the digital education of children will make them different adults from us?

Answer. There is a lot of evidence growing about them having worse mental health.

Q. In teenagers?

A. People think it’s worse, but now it’s more visible and people can talk about it more. Boys are talking about it more. Boys never used to have mental health issues. They were just angry. Now they have some mental health problems. But there’s no great evidence that their attention span is less or that their brains work differently. And actually, when I talk to young people, I think they’re fabulous. They’re fabulous, helpful, reflexive. They learn. They’ve got a good assessment of where their difficulties are and what they need, but they’re also determined.

Q. Parents’ fear of technology is overwhelming. Why?

A. We have always been afraid of technology and change.

Q. But in the 80s we were optimistic about computers.

A. There was an old conversation about push and pull. Television push and computers pull. People thought that on the computer, everything was there, but you could choose to go and find friends, information content. Now they’ve worked out how to make the internet a push technology, what they think is going to make them profit, what they push at you, what they put in your feed.

Q. We didn’t stop using it either.

A. Could we imagine a world without it? We lived in it for years. Do we really want to go back 30 years? I think most people don’t. They love being able to Google to find out the answer to any question. There are lots of things it does offer that we don’t emphasize enough. They love being able to find other people, their peculiar hobby or their niche identity. They love having streaming content of a million kinds. There are lots of things that people love about it, but they did not bargain that every thought and move and feeling was going to be collected and aggregated and monetized and sometimes weaponized against them. The profit extraction behind the screen has transformed what that potential was.

Q. But does this change its value to children? When we talk about children, everything seems bad.

A. There’s lots of good for kids. But we need to stand back from the screen and think about the balance of kids’ lives. What I argue is that we’ve been getting over-focused on screens. There’s a lot of other stuff. There’s a lot of social inequality. There’s a really unclear future in so many ways. A lot of problems are not resolved. So we focus on screens because we think we can control that. It seems like the controllable bit of our lives.

Q. You have written that starting to use the internet offers “opportunities and risks” to children. What would you say to parents who put off screens for as long as they can? Do they also delay opportunities?

A. Some of them are. There are a lot of parents who don’t really know how to provide their children with great learning and creative opportunities. And the internet is full of those if you know where to focus. There are a lot of parents whose jobs don’t give them any time to play with their kids, and there’s great playing opportunities online. In a happier world, it would be better to let children go and play in the street and play with their friends. But we don’t let our kids play in the streets, and we worry about all their friends. We’re pretty worried as parents offline as well as online.

Q. In an article you compare a video game like Minecraft with street games. Are they comparable?

A. You can compare them on some dimensions, but not all. It’s not physical exercise. If we got better at augmented reality, maybe it could be. Pokemon Go was a big hit. It was interesting. It was completely monetized, but it could have been something that wasn’t. The potential is there, and people loved it. So I think there are points of comparison. Let’s not take physical activity, but let’s take imagination. Can children be as imaginative in Minecraft as they are in their bank garden? Maybe.

Q. You have written that “expert consensus has shifted from counting screen time to evaluating the content, context, and connections that screen time brings.” What is that “good screen time”?

A. Ask the children.

Q. They still say it’s watching YouTube.

A. You could say, what do you choose on YouTube? What’s better? What makes you feel good after you’ve watched it? What leads you to have some imaginative or creative ideas or to feel more at peace with yourself? There are lots of things that we ask kids about their friendships or their play outside. We ask better questions. When we think about the screen, we just say, how long have you been on it? It’s like our capacity to engage with children in a thoughtful way disappears.

Q. Why is it so hard to get evidence on screens and children?

A. There’s a number of reasons. One is that we don’t have a very good language for what digital technologies are or what they offer. We don’t have a way of describing what’s on the screen and what genres digital content falls into. We had that established for television, but we haven’t now. There are also some real ethical problems. We can’t do experiments on children that might harm them, and a lot of the outcomes we’re interested in take years to show. It’s also an underfunded area. A lot of people are rushing to come out with the policy and practice before they’ve funded the research. The government is always saying to me, where are the findings? And I think, well, you haven’t funded any research on this, and now you want the findings.

Q. You said that researchers know that parents are more effective if they prioritize respect over prohibitions.

A. None of it is easy. And partly because we’re always being told about all the bad things. But if I went on and on about bullying at school and how it promotes inequalities, and children never learn anything because they hate their teachers, you would never send your kids to school. So we can focus on all the problems, or we can develop a language to figure out where the positives are and then steer kids towards that. But also I think we need to regulate big tech.

Q. You write about big tech that “Technological innovation is fast, complex, opaque and largely unresponsive to parental concerns.”

A. Platforms are doing many things wrong. They are pushing the anorexia content, disturbing content, violence. But Europe is now passing the Digital Services Act. The regulation is really happening. It doesn’t give enough attention to children and their rights because they’re always secondary to consumers who pay real money, but Europe is making the biggest steps in regulation.

Q. You have two pieces of advice for parents trying to do well. First, be clear on values.

A. A lot of people feel that their values come secondary to peer pressure. The most important thing is their child’s got to do what everyone else does. But what I always see as a researcher is that everyone’s doing something different at home.

Q. Are parents or peer pressure more important?

A. The biggest influence on every life outcome is what parents do and what parents provide. Peer pressure matters, but never as much.

Q. The second piece of advice is to share digital pleasures and negotiate, not impose.

A. Parents could be encouraged to share more of both what they do and what their kids enjoy and find something that they can do together. The pandemic has been interesting because kids have seen their parents working, and parents have seen their kids doing their schoolwork. This is an interesting moment to stay with some of that, because otherwise, everything’s in a box. This is me at work and I know a lot about tech, and this is me at home, and I throw up my hands and feel I can’t control it.

Q. When you say stop scaring parents, who are you referring to?

A. To the media.

Q. Oh.

A. Those headlines. “There is a pedophile in your son’s room.” “Suicide statistics are going up.” “Social media is out of control.”

Q. But they still come from some academic paper.

A. There might be some weird study, but there’s a lot of other studies that are probably boring and balanced. Parents always gravitate to the worst risk they think of.

Q. Like stranger danger?

A. Yes. It’s really rare. I would be a lot more worried about my daughter seeing that everyone is thin and beautiful than about a pedophile grooming her, though of course it happens. Parents deal with such a wide range of risks. It’s too much. So we’re scared.

Q. What does “free play” mean in the digital age?

A. We all believe in children playing, but play as being harnessed by adults. We only want play if there’s an educational purpose. So we gamify learning and we gamify what adults want. We’re squeezing out spaces for children to decide for themselves how they want to play. We kind of get it when we see kids running off into a bit of green space or on the beach or somewhere. We know what free play looks like. But then we build our parks full of equipment and rules, or we build our schools with ever less time for the kids to go out and play. Or we have all the rules about how they can use screens and do digital play. We reduce the space for free choice and then we gamify what we want the kids to do, so is there an educational purpose, and if not, we think they are wasting their time.

Q. The children of this generation will play with augmented or virtual reality in 20 years. We were the last without the internet, but they will be the last without augmented realities.

A. Probably. No one wants to go backwards, really. Maybe take a Saturday afternoon with no screen, but it just needs to be more designed in young people’s interests and with a better balance with everything else that’s happening in the world.

Q. In a recent scientific article, you link digital literacy with resilience. How?

A. It’s like riding a bicycle. If you’re good at riding a bicycle, you might cycle to school and you might cycle to the local drug dealer. You can go anywhere, you can do anything. But what we see with digital literacy, as they get more critical understanding, is they might encounter more risks, but they also become more resilient. So they say no to the drug dealer and that’s good. So they get to do more and they encounter more risk. That scares parents because the kids have been on Reddit or they have seen violence online. But resilience is developed through a measure of adversity. If we wrap our kids in cotton wool, they don’t learn how to cope when something goes wrong. So we do want them to cope, and we want them to cope online. That means they’ve got to understand the kind of spaces they’re in and where the support is online and how it works, why they’re getting all this negativity on their feed, or why they’re suddenly in this extremist space.

Q. Limiting digital exposure doesn’t seem like a solution.

A. It’s not a solution, but the point is a degree of resilience. As a 16 year old, you can see some things and figure out how to cope. The nine year old might not cope with it. Everyone can cope with a certain amount from where they are and the help they need.

Q. That’s why the debate about the age of the first cell phone is complicated.

A. It’s crazy because it’s back to the device, forgetting about the content, if you see X or Y or have certain contacts.

Q. It depends on what you do with it.

A. It depends on what you see and who you contact. It’s not the device. As they get older, it should be age appropriate, just like how we give children picture books when they’re little and easy-to-read books when they’re older.

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