Stella O'Malley: Have we got it wrong about phones?

Many parents and children all over the country will be thrilled to read that a recent study tells us to ignore all the horror stories because, apparently, using phones and tablets isn’t particularly damaging for children.

According to this Oxford University study, using technology impacts less than one per cent of a teenager’s sense of well-being while getting adequate sleep and having a regular breakfast has much more of an impact on a child’s happiness.

Of course some would argue that it is studies such as these that give research a bad name. Could we really have got it so wrong? Can we rely on this latest information or is this yet another example of a study that contradicts many others, and leaves confused parents scratching their heads?

Many parents will recall the bitter arguments about whether they should let their baby ‘cry it out’ or whether they should always try to soothe a crying baby; others will recall debates about breastfeeding versus bottle-feeding. Of course both sides are always able to find research that backs up their evermore outlandish claims.

But perhaps it is too easy to throw your hands in the air and dismiss all the studies as rubbish? Because we can’t dismiss the facts.

This Oxford study was comprehensive as researchers gathered information on more than 300,000 teenagers in the US and UK between 2007 and 2016. Screen use was identified as having a 0.4pc impact on teenagers’ overall well-being – akin to the impact of wearing glasses – while smoking cannabis is apparently 2.7 times worse for our mental health and bullying is 4.3 times worse.

The lead researcher, Professor Andrew Przybylski believes that the current panic about how screens are destroying a generation is inappropriate and he warned that experts should watch out in case they become the boy who cried screens.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the latest research from the ESRI isn’t so favourable on children’s tech use. This research gathered data from 8,500 Irish children and showed that kids who own a mobile phone at age nine perform less well in reading and maths tests at age 13.

If we put the Oxford study together with the ESRI study, we could surmise that maybe these kids who are addicted to their phones are happier, but less educated? This then of course begs the question whether we should encourage short-term happiness for our teenagers or should parents play the long-term game?

The focus on short-term goals over long-term goals has often been identified as the difference between a traditionally working-class and middle-class mindset. So the working-class parent might believe that it is better to grab whatever pleasure you can while the middle-class parent might urge the child to resist the temptation to give in to passing pleasures and instead work towards a more satisfying long-term goal.

There are flaws in both attitudes – if we continuously resist pleasure, we are in danger of living a joyless, depressing existence, while if we always choose the easy option, we could end up with fewer opportunities in life. The key to all of this is figuring out how to strike the balance. Too much is too much and it doesn’t matter whether it is too much jogging, too much studying or too much tech.

It is too simplistic to demonise screens – technology covers the full spectrum; it is too big a world to reduce to ‘four legs good, two legs bad’. We use technology to work and to play, to educate ourselves and to indulge in mindless escapism. The fact is that some tech is very good for you and some is very bad.

However, just because something is bad for you doesn’t mean we need to get too uptight about it because, apparently, lots of the more pleasant aspects of life are bad for us. Indeed, we seem to be in the grip of a never-ending moral panic about how terrible everything is. This is simply not appropriate and Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, strikes a blow for those of us who wish to live calmer, happier lives.

In his acclaimed polemic, Rosling explains in intricate detail how, for the vast majority of people all over the world, life is improving steadily. We are healthier, wealthier and more educated than ever before. And Ireland, despite all the doom-laden headlines about poverty, homelessness and crises in the health services, is healthier and wealthier than the vast majority of other countries in the world.

According to Rosling, it is our dramatic, problem-solving brains that seek to find the problem within even the most positive of situations. This is why headlines that declare everything is awful and getting worse attract more attention and sell more papers than headlines that mildly suggest most people are doing ok. Dramatic, negative headlines activate our interest and the capitalist model dictates that the market provides what the public seeks.

Humans, unlike animals, continuously seek to better themselves. The brain is a problem-solving organ and as soon as we solve one problem, we dash off to tackle the next problem. The current focus on the ‘wellness industry’ is perhaps because many people already have good health, and so we now feel we must also seek an inner glow and luminous skin. However, if we’re not careful, we could end up feeling like Sisyphus who was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again. If we forget to celebrate our successes and instead seek to pick away at every single tiny problem in our lives, we’ll end up becoming joyless and depressed.

Most parents individually agree that their own children have better lives than they had – and yet we still tie ourselves into knots about our children’s problems. Sadly, this worrying can often create more problems than it solves. If you really wish to worry, then worry about circular negative thinking and worry about how feelings of joylessness could impact upon your family’s sense of well-being.

We need to focus upon our happiness because, ironically, although we have less and less to worry about, we are worrying more and more and, as a direct result, we are getting in the way of our own happiness. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so alarming.

Although we will always have problems to contend with, we can still make sure that we knock a lot of joy out of life; as Samuel Beckett, ever the grim realist, pointed out, “You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.”

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