Book review: Families in the Digital Age
Not turning my child into a zombie with no friends (but lots of likes)
by Devin Bowles
Toni Hassan’s Families in the Digital Age: Every parent’s guide is an invitation to deep thought and dialogue about the effect of social media and pervasive smart phones on our children. My interest in this book was initially captured because I am a father, and this book should be mandatory reading for all Australian parents. Before long, Hassan convinced me that the public health implications are profound. This hugely important topic has gone largely unnoticed, in part because personal digital technologies have rapidly become so integrated with our lives that they do not invite comment or introspection.
There are no ‘digital natives’, even if younger generations have been given that label. As a species, we evolved brains that grow and change based on our environments. Our brains develop as they should only when environments and stimuli are right. While personal digital technologies can be very useful to adults, our brains evolved to mature without these technologies. For children, the quick but shallow rewards they offer can too easily be addictive. This can be problematic for adults, but devastating for children, who may be unable to develop their strongest sense of Self. In children, such overuse could easily lead to a malformed, stunted capacity to develop the genuine, messy, real relationships.
The social effects of a population which is even a little less able to engage in deep, face-to-face relationships are bleak. I am almost haunted by the idea of next year’s university residences full of lonely young adults desperate for companionship and understanding. Ill-equipped to knock on the door next to their own, each one is trying to find (rather than forge) connection the best way know they how, through their screens, with no more success than a rat repeatedly pressing the wrong lever for its reward.
As the title suggests, Hassan’s book is written for parents, and therefore explores some of the public health and social science themes less than it might. If, as Hassan argues, it will be up to parents to model good use of these technologies and moderate their children’s access, then she picked the right approach as an author. In any case, it will not take a lot of imagination on the part of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) members to extrapolate these themes. One of the book’s strengths is that it recognises that this is a dynamic subject that will require ongoing consideration, ideally as a society. I’d be interested to hear other PHAA members’ views of the book and this subject, but let’s chat on the phone or Zoom rather than email.
Devin Bowles is a parent, public health scholar and the Executive Director of the Council of Academic Public Health Institutions Australasia. This review was first published in the PHAA newsletter.