Byron review - gathering evidence

Tanya Byron, leading the government's independent review on the potential risks to children from exp

New phenomena often bring new anxieties and video games are no exception. They are frequently blamed for a raft of social ills, while the benefits they can provide go unreported.

Video games and the internet now offer a range of opportunities unheard of in previous generations. They are entertaining - with new ways of playing now appealing to wider audiences; they are educational - enabling children to engage in innovative learning; and they provide an important social mechanism by allowing gamers to build friendships and establish global communities.

However, new technologies have brought new risks and new worries for parents and those involved in the welfare of children and young people, particularly in an online environment where game playing can be less controlled.

That is why I agreed to carry out the government's independent review, in my role as a clinical psychologist and a mother of two children. We need to help parents to understand the risks associated with children using these new technologies and make sure that they have the tools and information to be able to manage and minimise those risks, without detracting from the benefits that they can offer.

Tanya Byron

Rapid changes in technology mean long term solutions may be difficult, but these are the technologies that our children are using and will continue to use as they grow into the next workforce and the next thinking generation. So, this generation needs to be able to understand and balance the opportunities they offer against any risks of harm.

But what are the risks? This review will analyse the current evidence on the risks to children's safety and well-being of exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material in video games. It will also assess the effectiveness and adequacy of existing measures that help prevent children from being exposed to such material - by looking at, for example, the age classification system that applies to video games; parental control mechanisms on games consoles and the educational material available. I will be asking the video games industry and regulators what measures they are taking at the moment and what more might be done to ensure children and young people are protected.

Of course, it could be said that this is all based on the assumption that content in video games has the potential to cause harm or affect the well-being of our children, and this is one aspect I will be looking at in my review. Historically, there has been a huge amount of research looking at media effects on behaviour. However, the evidence remains contradictory and ethical implications mean that there are inherent difficulties in doing research in this area and in identifying causality.

State intervention

Given these limitations, how far should parental or state intervention go? This is a difficult question to answer. But the well-being of children is at the heart of this review and it is with this in mind that we have to face this challenge. There will always be some young people who are more vulnerable than others and some who will take more risks and yet be less equipped to deal with the consequences - children I have spent years working with.

I do not expect this review to be about draconian measures or wrapping our children up in cotton wool. Children need to learn how to handle risks as part of growing up. However, we need to be realistic and support children to manage the risks they face as they develop. This review is about taking a step back and looking proportionately at the issues, so we don't deny children the pleasures and opportunities new technologies can provide.

Part of this is about ensuring that parents are supported, and feel equipped to help their children navigate this technology safely, but it is also about pulling together the shared responsibility we have - as parents, society, government and industry - to protect our children and young people from harm. I am engaging with everyone who has a role in this, by asking them to share their views.

Call for evidence

My "call for evidence" closed on 30 November and I am now considering the responses, but this is just part of my consultation - my Children and Young People's call for evidence closes on 17 December, and I am holding a number of workshops, focus groups and meetings with gamers, children and young people, parents' groups, academics and the video game industry, who are all engaging with the process and offering their own potential solutions.

I will be publishing my report and recommendations in spring 2008. For more information about the review and to tell me your views go to:

Classroom games

In August 2005, Futurelab, the not-for-profit organisation aiming to integrate innovative technologies into education, launched a year-long study called Teaching with Games to test the use of three computer games: The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and Knights of Honor in classrooms throughout the UK. These games, often known as "god games", induce players to use critical thinking skills to effect changes within the realm of the game.

The study was designed to offer a broad overview of teachers' and students' use of and attitudes towards commercial off-the-shelf computer games in schools. Key messages from the researchers were that there is still a generational divide between teachers and students in respect of computer games play, with 72 per cent of teachers never playing games outside school, in comparison with 82 per cent of children reporting that they played games at least once a fortnight.

Overall, the research suggested that the majority of teachers and students are open to the idea of using games in formal curricular contexts and that computer games are viewed as motivating to students. However, 37 per cent of teachers and 22 per cent of students think that computer games should not be used in the classroom.

Teachers and students have similar perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages of using games. Both groups believe that game play improves computer skills and general problem-solving abilities. However, teachers are more likely to believe that students can gain subject knowledge from computer games than children - 62 per cent compared to 24 per cent - while more children believe games improve social skills - 24 per cent compared to 17 per cent of teachers.

Finally, the research suggests that the main barriers perceived by teachers to the use of games are not those of the curriculum or of assessment, but the technical issues that may need to be overcome.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood