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Digital Disconnect and its adverse impact on how (or whether) we engage with nature

Laura Briggs

29th September 2016

As the Digital Schoolhouse programme starts a national roll out to schools across the UK, scientists warn that digital disconnect can mean caring less - for each other and the environment. LAURA BRIGGS reports.

Younger people's brains are far more vulnerable to screen-consumption. Right up until the age of 25 it can affect their development and behaviour in a different way to adults.

With so much money tied up in the digital workplace, little research has been undertaken to understand how screen time affects the average worker and our connection to the environment.

There have, however, been numerous studies into how how the length of time spent on devices impacts negatively on children and young people and as your reliance on technology grows - for work and for leisure activities - the bigger our disconnect with nature and the environment becomes.

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman agrees we need more research into the overall effects of both working screen time (your job) and what is known as 'Discretionary Screen Time' - the time you use devices on a recreational basis. He says, whatever the activity, moderation is key:

"People don't think of technology as an industry, but it is and it has shareholders. Mark Zuckerberg might be a nice guy with a hoody, but he has shareholders. I'm not anti-technology, I use it, but there is a lot of money at stake and at what point do we start to recognise that there is a level of digital use which becomes misuse?"

The particular vulnerability of young minds

Younger people's brains are far more vulnerable to screen-consumption. Right up until the age of 25 it can affect their development and behaviour in a different way to adults. Dr Sigman says: "If you are looking at young people, whose health and social skills are still developing, there are very robust connections between social media time and depression.

"There is also something that we learn - known as face perception where we are able to recognise through people's facial expressions their intentions, emotions and motives and research has already shown there are big differences in early stage face perception in heavy Internet users.

"Children's ability to read face perception has been shown to improve dramatically if you take away their electronic devices. To me what is scary is what is being displaced by spending too much time in front of a screen and my advice always is that there is nothing to be lost by adopting a principle of precaution until we know more."

Research has suggested that 16-24 year olds in America are spending more time on digital media than they are sleeping, and in offices across the world workers spend entire days chained to computers and locked into screen time without breaks to meet the demands of jobs.

Studies show that this sedentary lifestyle impacts our eating and sleeping habits, with direct links between sedation and a higher level of body fat. Dr Sigman explains says that office workers should be getting up once every hour to have a break from the screen.

He also warns that workers should also be wary of amount the amount of time they spend on Facebook, claiming that checking social statuses and photo-sharing can have a negative impact on outside relationships, including our relationship with the natural world.

There's no doubt that the digital world has given opportunities where once they didn't exist, and small businesses can now trade in a global marketplace. We can also use digital platforms to share our concerns about the environment and work together to try and get our voices heard.

A generation that missed out on nature?

A key factor in this developing 'digital landscape' is the decline in appreciation for our natural landscape. Dr Sigman cites "videophilia" - the focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media, and a move away from "biophilia" - the desire to spend time in natural surroundings. He believes that ultimately the digital lives we lead will cause evolutionary changes, not yet apparent to us, but that will filter down to our descendants, with no telling what negative impacts these will have.

He said: "I have a number of worries, I believe that judicious use of the Internet and digital media is good, but I'm wary of disproportionate use. People understand the concept of consumption, dose, and using technology as a benefit, but as with nutrition, most will overdose.

"It's true to say that we will ultimately evolve as a species as a result of our digital environment. We are losing an important reality that we are still hard wired to have a lot of face-to-face contact. People need to make sure that they use social media and that social media doesn't use them."

Nottingham-based digital coach, brand strategist and public speaker Debbie Clarke points out there is a yin and yang to all things, and digital working is no exception: "Overall I love the capacity for homeworking and freelancing and networking that technology has given us.  It means that I have been able to set up my own business and have a wider reach for customers than I ever would have had from a shop. 

"It has also created jobs that weren't even here before. I support women in business with their digital marketing. Twenty years ago this would have been an ad man agency, run by men.  Today there are so many women running the digital marketing field. It seems to be an area we are excelling in, because I think this new breed of marketing evolves around creating relationships on a human level, rather than just a straight transaction of 'buy my product'."

But as we saw when Facebook censored an image of the Vietnam war, the power to manipulate is an increasing concern, Debbie adds: "As with newspapers there are a few people pulling the strings and so they have the power to manipulate and alter our news feed. Also the algorithm of Facebook, another place where more and more people are getting their newsfeed, works to show you only the things you aready like."

Can we get the best of both worlds?

Adapting to a new way of working is taking place in schools across the country, as a direct response to digital and children now have to embrace technology far earlier than previous generations.

The Digital Schoolhouse (DSH) concept was brought in almost a decade ago, first opening its doors in 2008 at Langley Grammar School to share the study and practice of how best to teach the digital concepts and skills of computing in a creative manner, easily understood by young people.

Now about to start a national roll out to 19 schools across the country DSH is hoping the programme will play a key role in developing digital landscape.

The scheme is run by UK games industry trade body Ukie and powered by PlayStation in association with the Department for Education, the Mayor of London's Schools Excellence Fund (LSEF) and the Digital Schoolhouse Trust.

Dr Jo Twist OBE, CEO of Ukie, said: "The Digital Schoolhouse is equipping the learners of today with the digital skills and a fundamental understanding of complex computational thinking concepts - such as systems thinking, algorithms, abstraction - demystifying them through simple often unplugged techniques. 

"Making them understandable and relevant to their lives will give them a literacy fit for 21st century digital creative economy. The skills that the pupils are learning in the workshops will be fundamental to jobs in 20 years' time that haven't even been invented yet, and the Digital Schoolhouse is here to ensure that pupils thrive in this new digital landscape from an early age.

"All of the workshops are collaborative and interactive, often using unplugged techniques such as magic tricks and dancing. The pupils work together with their teacher to learn quite complex computing thinking through play and fun. Social interaction, experimentation and play are key to the way that we naturally learn and grow, and this is what has made the DSH play-based learning model so successful throughout the pilot year." 



Laura Briggs is the Ecologist UK-based news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WordsbyBriggs.


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