On Tools, And Desires | It’s Never the Knife That Stabs

by , under Technology

Lots of news channels yesterday discussed research that has been done that suggests that greater amounts of screen-time correlates with increased potential for depression and anxiety in children. The Indie reported:

The report found that excessive “screen time” – more than four hours a day – was linked to anxiety and depression and was responsible for limiting a child’s opportunity for social interaction and physical activity.

“The greater the time spent in front of the screen, the greater the negative impact on both behavioural and emotional issues relating to the child’s development,” said Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at PHE. Professor Fenton said that too much screen time limited a child’s opportunities for physical activity and face-to-face social interaction with friends and family, which are key factors in reducing childhood anxiety.

On C5 News Vicky Beeching – whom I enjoyed hanging out with last weekend – pushed back at the slightly hysteric tone of some of the reports. She’s in the midst of a PhD examining our relationship with technology so knows her stuff, and pointed out that what we are experiencing with digital media is the same sort of issue as we have always faced with the tools we use: it’s not about the tools themselves, but our ability to sensibly interact with them.

But bluntly (rim shot!) it’s never the knife that stabs, but the hand that is behind it. The knife itself is inert and morally neutral. Only when it is ‘activated’ by becoming an extension of a human body does it begin to act. But the actions the knife takes are driven solely by the intentions of the body wielding it: for good (chopping vegetables) or bad (chopping people). Richard Sennett is very good on this in his excellent book The Craftsman.

In other words, when we are thinking about the effects of technology / tool use we must always look at the environment that drives that use. So the key issue is not ‘children who spend excessive time on screens get anxious and depressed,’ but ‘what are the environmental conditions that are causing children to spend excessive time on screens?’ In my experience it’s often about the busy parent who sees screen-time as an easy way to distract children whilst they get on with their own stuff, or the child who is already struggling with social interaction who finds an activity that gives positive feedback.

The ‘parenting expert’ who was on with Vicky suggested that screens were so attractive because the ‘real’ world was ‘so boring.’ I found this pretty jaw-dropping to be honest. Firstly, as Vicky pointed out, there is no ‘pure’ real world without technology. Playing a game of football requires a stitched ball, boots, shin-pads, mown grass… But more importantly, as I pointed out recently in my review of Iron Man 3, humans are tool-makers. It’s what we do. But the danger is that we tie-up our drives in the tools themselves, rather than in the craft of using and creating them. An alcoholic is not someone who has a specific problem with drink; the drink is a signifier of a deeper issue. So a child who considers the world outside of their screen-time boring needs to be challenged (along with their parents) about something deeper.

These are complex issues which, as digital tools expand (and potentially contract – disappearing into our bodies in more integrated ways) we will have to come to understand better. Clearly, we all need a balance of activities and interactions – and surely no-one would want to hark back to pre-digital age where children couldn’t explore using iPads/Google etc. My hunch as a teacher is that the immediacy of screen communications impairs our ability to be ‘present’ and attentive and that this can have an impact on learning and the ability to engage deeply in different kinds of interaction. But we shouldn’t blame the tools for that. We need to look to the hands that use them, and the drives that come from within, as well as the environments others have created for us.


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  1. Alex

    There is much truth in these words KB, I’m also feeling a slight tension with the words of Marshall McLuhan ringing in my ears – “the medium is the message”. You probably know a lot about McLuhan already, and may well have read Shane Hipps’ excellent books on the subject of media and faith. It makes for some real food for thought, comparing and weighing up the values of each perspective. I did write about McLuhan in a series I did a while ago. https://unconsciousstreaming.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/message-media-part-3-mcluhan/ (feel free to delete / edit the comment if you feel like I’m pushing my thoughts on your blog / audience).

  2. camostar

    Is it an either/or though? Compare someone addicted to alcohol and another addicted to soft drink. The object in either situation means different material effects. Also, objects don’t have agency, so we can think of ourselves as agents who can change our environment to make good of truly neutral objects, but there are also other agents who should not/cannot/etc/whatever be controlled and will play a part in the way we relate to our environment and tools because they also relate to these in particular ways.