Tech companies have a ‘duty of care’ and should contribute towards research into addictive technology – Ged Killen MP

This week I held a debate on addictive technology, the aim of this debate was to highlight and begin a discussion with the UK Government about the widespread use of personal technology, such as smartphones, the apps they run and the social media they allow us to access, and the increasing evidence that these technologies have been designed to be addictive and that over exposure can lead to social and mental health problems.

 

Over the last few years there has been growing evidence that the very designs of smartphones and apps are intended to encourage consistent use, similar to gambling machines in betting shops. Former designers of these apps have described it as if tech companies are “taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface”, and that “behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting".

These revelations have come alongside research that has shown a relationship between heavy use of personal technology and poorer mental health. In US, large scale studies have shown that young people who spent more time on social media and electronic devices such as smartphones were more likely to report mental health issues than adolescents who spent less time on such platforms. IPSOS Mori has reported in the UK that increased time spent online is associated with lower level of life satisfaction.

In Scotland we have also seen increasing research that not only are our young people spending more time with such devices, but that higher levels of exposure can result in social and health complications.

The Scottish Government’s SALSUS study which looks at the lifestyle trends of school aged children has shown that some of the most common weekly leisure activities were associated with using technology, including listening to music, going online, using social media and playing games, with other non-technology enabled activities lower down the list.

Research by the mental health foundation has also shown that among Scottish young people 30% say social media is driving them to feel socially isolated.

I genuinely believe these types of technologies are good for us, and good for society, however like any new development, we need to learn how to use it responsibility and recognise where extended use could have a negative impact on our health.

Despite the penetration of smartphones, we know relatively little about the health effects they can cause, particularly in the long term. It took decades for the true addictive and health impacts of smoking to become known, the iPhone, which began the smartphone revolution, is just over a decade old.

That’s why in my debate I called on the UK Government to look setting up a fund to collect contributions from tech companies to provide research into the addictive qualities of such technologies, the health impacts of their use and to help offset the costs of care when things go wrong.

There are similar funds and schemes like this for both the gambling industry and the alcohol industry, so this is not a new idea.

Fundamentally I believe that these companies have a duty of care for the consumers who use their products, and where a company’s products can have a negative effect they should contribute towards the social costs.

It is certainly not the time to throw away our smartphones, however what we need to do is start thinking and learning about how we live better with the technologies we use every day.

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