New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have been released showing the latest numbers for how people are using the roughly 40 hours of leisure time they have each week.
The headline is that people aged 25 years and under are now spending over a third of that leisure time using ‘electronic devices’. Now, I would argue that figure sounds about right, nothing to see here, move along. Of course though, that’s not what has happened.
The numbers have instead been used by a number of media outlets to either implicitly or explicitly roll their collective eyes — “bloody young people, with their rock and/or roll music and their Pac Man video games and their Twitters and always being glued to their screens. It’s not like it was in the good old days.”
Well, despite my passable Grandpa Simpson impression over the years, for once I’m going to stick up for them there young people. I think these statistics have been completely bent out of shape, which has annoyed me. It’s worth looking at the numbers again to rebalance the negative view.
The first thing that needs to be highlighted here is the use of the term ‘devices’. The statisticians make clear that this includes “devices such as mobile phones, tablets, e-readers and laptops”. Well, now I would argue there’s quite a large amount of potential activity covered by that definition.
It doesn’t automatically mean people are spending 14 hours a week on Twitter or Facebook does it? It might mean they’re reading a book, which sounds a lot less objectionable doesn’t it? It might even mean — and I realise this couldn’t possibly be true — that they’re doing some work on their laptop…
The key piece of data used as comparison is that youngsters are spending less of their leisure time playing sports or in cultural pursuits. Yes, damn these couch potatoes, etc etc. Except, of course, that when you look at the data for under 25s the difference between the latest figures and those from 2000 is 0.6%.
Excuse me for not finding that stat as overwhelming evidence that young people are now all house-bound loners who hate exercise and socialising and that everything is going to hell in a handbasket.
Look, I’m not trying to argue that everything is fine and that we shouldn’t be keeping a close eye on these trends. I have no doubt that there are many people who have an unhealthy relationship with their devices and that there are growing social issues related to how we use technology today.
However, the collective loss of perspective that surrounds this type of story is incredibly unhelpful. As is the automatic insinuation that somehow it’s all young people’s fault (this all used to be fields when I were a lad don’t you know) and that fundamentally screens = bad.
The fact is, smartphones have been around for barely 10 years — we simply don’t know what impact they are or aren’t having on society at large or on people’s long-term health. Let’s not forget there are people who have incredibly unhealthy relationships with television and it hasn’t caused the downfall of society…yet.
Tracking this data is important. We can’t assume that there will be no negative consequences to the technology we create and use. But at the same time, we need more sober consideration and a higher threshold of evidence before we rush to judgement.
Because jumping to the wrong conclusions could be more dangerous than the problem we think we’ve identified.