Driven by continuously accelerating technological and digital innovation, human society is currently experiencing a unique phase of rapid and radical development. In the past, utilisation of novel technologies was largely restricted to the upper echelons of global society. Digitalisation, however, has been changing lives across the societal spectrum. Concerns that the widespread increase in digital technology use negatively affects global psychological well-being are widespread. Recent research has linked activities like smartphone use with depression and negative developmental outcomes. The UK House of Commons launched a parliamentary investigation into the association between digital technology use and well-being in February 2018, underlining the importance of this issue. Yet most scientific evidence in this area relies on low quality measurement, performs outdated statistical analyses and lacks transparency.
Many would agree that children are one of society’s most vulnerable social groups. Their surroundings and upbringing can have a life-long impact on their development. In those nations where digitalisation is widespread, children are some of digital technology’s most intense users. The time British adolescents spend online has doubled in the last decade, while 39% of American 18 to 29-year olds now say they are ‘almost constantly’ online. Enumerating the effects digital technologies are having on children is therefore increasingly pressing. This is especially important as preliminary research recently published in Nature found that the negative effects of digital technology use on psychological well-being are greatest for the least privileged children in our society. This finding strengthens concerns that digitalisation might widen societal divides instead of bridging them. Yet precautionary interventions to ensure that all children benefit from the digital revolution should only be considered when better evidence, clearly supporting the existence of these differential outcomes and highlighting their causes, has been obtained.
This project consists of two main sections. The first, Outlining the Effect, explores whether children who are vulnerable and less privileged are more or less likely to be adversely affected by digital technology use, analyzing the highest quality data obtainable, combining a range of pre-existing large-scale datasets collected by governments and interdisciplinary research councils in a diverse set of developed countries.
The second element of this project explores the issue of causality. Past research in this area has been overwhelmingly correlational, with few published causal analyses. Examining previous studies, it is impossible to discern whether increased digital technology use leads to lower well-being (when that effect is found), or whether the opposite is the case and children who feel worse subsequently use more technology. In addition to a large-scale examination of possible effects, this causal element of the project uses longitudinal analysis to provide more definite answers. This involves the use of two specific longitudinal datasets to examine the causal relationship between deprivation, digital technology use and well-being.