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When it comes to keeping children safe from harm, societies traditionally trusted their health, education and social governments to advise and guide them. While not every branch of government is wholly without fault, generally governments could be relied upon to act ethically and in the best interests of the public. Not so anymore. With the onslaught of advancing technology has come a rapid and questionable infiltration of technology corporations into both private and public sectors. While technology reaps obvious benefits, its long-term effects are unknown, raising serious questions regarding children. Rapid infiltration of untested technologies is occurring in many government institutions such as schools and hospitals, possibly resulting in perilous outcomes. Unbeknownst to the public, technology industry giants are challenging established institution’s ethical boundaries by pushing their products on children at an unprecedented state. Schools and hospitals are opening their doors to unethical and corrupt technology corporations who have one goal – to mine data and sell product. Once revered and respected, many institutions are compromising their previous ethical standards as they strive to conform to technology industry pressure to adopt the latest and greatest AI or IT. Choosing advancing technology over the long-term health and well being of children is tragic and will likely result in child harm. Public beware of who is guiding your governments to make crucial decisions regarding the health, safety and education of your children. This article is designed to shed light on three areas where government institutions caved to technology industry pressure, swaying them toward unsafe and unclear guidelines for children. These are just a minority of recent events which indicate that our governments are failing miserably to protect our most dear and cherished commodity, our children.
Infiltration of Health Sector by Microsoft
Just as Apple and Google are competing to infiltrate the education sector, Microsoft is deeply imbedding itself in healthcare. While positive outcomes from partnerships between technology corporations and government institutions are obvious, negative consequences are often hidden or disregarded. The recent media coverage of a research review by the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) raises serious concerns regarding partnerships between technology corporations and government healthcare institutions. In addition to apparent conflict of interest, the RCPCH review used faulty and insufficient search strategies which media then misinterpreted and misrepresented to the public. BBC Jan. 4, ’19 article Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told stated the RCPCH review was carried out by experts at University College London (UCL). RCPCH president Prof Russell Viner prefaces the review by stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “screens are part of modern life” adding: “The genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back.”
RCPCH Apparent Conflict of Interest
UCL is academic partner to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and is London’s leading multidisciplinary university with 11,000 staff, 35,000 students and an annual income of over £1bn. GOSH is an international centre of excellence in child healthcare and together with their research partner the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, GOSH forms the UK’s only academic Biomedical Research Centre specialising in paediatrics. Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) has announced a partnership with Microsoft which will see them collaborate on the development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to transform child health. How does this collaboration manage the obvious conflict of interest?
RCPCH Flawed Search Strategy
The research review by the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) stated the following search strategy:
“We searched electronic databases (Medline, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL) in February 2018. We used the search terms in Medline as follows: child OR teenager OR adolescent OR youth AND screen time OR television OR computer OR sedentary behaviour OR sedentary activity AND health with publication type limited to systematic review with or without meta-analysis. Similar search terms were used in the other databases. We did not limit studies by date or language. Identified relevant reviews were hand-searched for additional likely references.”
This search strategy is flawed as when researchers write papers, they are usually more specific in the terms used. An example would be excessive screen time is associated with: depression, obesity, anxiety, insomnia, abnormal brain development etc. The search term “health” encompasses all of the above, but the search strategy utilized will miss all of the above because the abstracts, titles, and keywords may not include the general term “health”. A better search strategy would be to replace the term health with symptoms and problems associated with excessive screen time e.g. addiction, depression, craving, anxiety, sleep deprivation, insomnia, obesity, behavioral problems, academic difficulties, brain development, etc.
Misinterpretation and Misrepresentation of Data
The RCPCH study was performed in Feb. 2018 and was accepted for publication by British Journal of Medicine in March 2018 (not much time for reflection on the outcomes before publication). The study shows multiple strong adverse impacts on health but gets moulded into guidelines in which few of those impacts are mentioned. Guidelines are then release to the media (see Guardian article “Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, says Doctors” with wording that is vague and open to misinterpretation by media outlets, with no evidence that the general membership was involved or even approved these guidelines. At the same time the UK Health Secretary was calling for restrictions to be placed on social media.
Infiltration of Education Sector by Apple and Google
The past decade has witnessed rapid proliferation of screen devices (cell phones, tablets, laptops) in school settings without evidence-based research showing they are effective or safe. While researchers in neuroscience, epidemiology, toxicology and child developmental fields have issued warnings documenting health hazards from technological devices, public awareness is limited and health agencies whose mandate is to protect children remain silent (Moskowitz, 2017). It almost appears as if the education sector believes it can act independent of child safety. Roxanna Marachi, PhD from San Jose’ State University in 2018 conducted a content analyses on four widely disseminated reports promoting emerging forms of educational technology, blended and personalized learning programs, and strategies to rapidly scale such programs in schools. Marachi’s study revealed 0% attention to health and/or developmental concerns that have been documented in the scientific, education, health, and child development research literatures. In contrast, analyses revealed relatively high rates of finance-related terms such as investment and market within the reports. It is abundantly clear that the education technology industry’s sole intent is to make money off the backs of young children not only through device and programs sales, but also through student data mining which grossly infringes on student privacy. While technology corporations are infiltrating the education sector with inaccurate, untested and fraudulent claims of improved learning and efficiency, school administrations are actively disregarding and discounting all negative mental, physical, social and cognitive adverse effects of escalating screen use by children. How did this happen?
While there are many devices and programs designed for educational settings, one of the most prolific and sinister is Summit Learning, an online platform used to collect student data and deliver instruction and assessments. The platform was developed with the financial and technical support of Facebook, the Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a for-profit LLC headquartered in California founded by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy reports that students who use Summit Learning spend > 3 hours per day in front of a screen with only 10 min. of supervisor support, and by the end of last school year, only 30% passed. Summit Learning website claims the right to collect an extraordinary amount of personal student information including student and parent names and their email addresses; student ID numbers, attendance, suspension and expulsion records, disabilities, their gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, their date of birth, teacher observations of their behavior, their grade promotion or retention, test scores, college admissions, survey responses, homework assignments, and any extracurricular activities they engage in. Summit also plans to track students after graduation from high school, including college attendance and careers. The Parent Coalition for Student Privacy goes on to report the Summit shares this data to as many as 19 corporate “partners” including the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, to run their services and do research to help them improve their “product.” In addition, several of the websites that students are assigned through the Summit platform track student data for marketing and advertising purposes, including YouTube. There is no independent oversight of Summit or its partner companies to ensure that they are using the data appropriately or securing it from breaches.
With prolific research showing little to no academic benefits from screen use in schools and equally as much research showing harm to children from excessive screen use, one really has to wonder who is driving this rapidly escalating EdTech Train. With the OECD releasing a scathing denouncement of EdTech in 2015, schools continued to escalate screen use. Despite knowledge about tech industry data mining and privacy breaches, schools continued to escalate screen use. With mounting research showing the isolating and sedentary aspects of screens displace achieving literacy, social interaction and physical fitness, and high screen use is causally linked to poor physical and mental health, schools continued to escalate screen use. With full knowledge that students are routinely accessing inappropriate content while at school including video games, pornography, cyberbullying, and social media, schools continued to escalate screen use. Knowing that some students are addicted to screens and that multitasking inherent in screen use is harming student health, school continued to escalate screen use.
Through pervasive and unchecked screen use penetrating every sector of being, we have unknowingly participated in an epic experiment on humans fueled by greed in the technology industry, which is presently showing grave harm to children’s physical, social, mental and academic performance. We need to stop the EdTech Train, bring it back to the station and scrutiny of common sense, and pick up all of the children who have fallen off.
What about the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
Wireless devices have not been proven safe with mounting evidence showing harm, yet few members of the public are aware of the enormity of this unfolding travesty. Many levels of federal, state/provincial and municipal governments have consultants from the technology industry who have much to lose if restrictions were put in place to stop the production of technology devices and unrolling of 5G. There are 3 sources of accumulating data showing wireless radiation is unsafe: 1) epidemiological human studies, 2) experimental animal studies, and 3) rising cancer incidence in humans (for additional information see Wireless Radiation is Not Safe for Children). Health government agencies while aware of this rising threat have failed to warn the public or advise the public of what to do to keep children safe.
The FDA nominated the National Toxicology Program to do an extensive study on mice and rats investigating possible links between cell phone radiation and cancer. Preliminary results were released in 2016 with final study results made public in Jan. ’18 showing ‘clear evidence’ for malignant heart schwannoma and ‘some evidence’ for brain glioma and adrenal pheochromocytoma. This evidence was reviewed by expert panel in Mar. ’18 confirming original findings. Yet Mark Hertsgaard reported in The Guardian article “The inconvenient truth about cancer and mobile phones” that not one major news organization in the US or Europe reported this scientific news, but then news coverage of mobile phone safety has long reflected the outlook of the wireless industry. For a quarter of a century now, the industry has been orchestrating a global PR campaign aimed at misleading not only journalists, but also consumers and policymakers about the actual science concerning mobile phone radiation. Indeed, big wireless has borrowed the very same strategy and tactics big tobacco and big oil pioneered to deceive the public about the risks of smoking and climate change, respectively. And like their tobacco and oil counterparts, wireless industry CEOs lied to the public even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.
Dr. Robert Melnick in an article for The Hill “There’s a clear cell phone-cancer link, but the FDA is downplaying it” published on Nov. 13, ’18 reports that according to Jeffrey Shuren, Director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, “these findings should not be applied to human cell phone usage,” adding that “we believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health” despite any existing supporting evidence. Dr. Melnick went on to say that while expressing this opinion, Dr. Shuren neglects to note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization, classified radio-frequency radiation from wireless devices as a “possible human carcinogen” based largely on findings of increased risks of gliomas and Schwann cell tumors in the brain near the ear in humans after long term use of cellphones. Thus, the same tumor types are elevated in both animals and humans exposed to cell phone radiation. Dr. Melnick in The Hill article goes on to report that the FDA’s position is quite unusual because it was this agency that nominated cell phone radiation emitted from wireless communication devices to the NTP for toxicity and carcinogenicity studies in experimental animals so as to “provide the basis to assess the risk to human health.”
Health concerns for children may be greater than that for adults due to increased penetration of cell phone radiation within the brains of children. Simply ignoring the cancer data from the NTP studies is not in the interest of public health. Because of the widespread use of cell phones among the general public, even a small increase in cancer risk would have a serious public health impact. An important lesson that should be learned from the NTP studies is that we can no longer assume that any current or future wireless technology, including 5G, is safe without adequate testing.
Sarah Starkey with the UK Independent Neuroscience and Environmental Health Research published an article in 2016 titled Inaccurate official assessment of radiofrequency safety by the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation which states the Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) 2012 report forms the basis of official advice on the safety of radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields in the United Kingdom and has been relied upon by health protection agencies around the world. This review describes incorrect and misleading statements from within the report, omissions and conflict of interest, which make it unsuitable for health risk assessment. The executive summary and overall conclusions did not accurately reflect the scientific evidence available. Independence is needed from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the group that set the exposure guidelines being assessed. This conflict of interest critically needs to be addressed for the forthcoming World Health Organisation (WHO) Environmental Health Criteria Monograph on Radiofrequency Fields. Decision makers, organisations and individuals require accurate information about the safety of RF electromagnetic signals if they are to be able to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities and protect those for whom they have legal responsibility.
Wireless radiation threat to our children is real and will result in harm. Applying the pre-cautionary principle (increase distance, decrease duration) while reducing radiation, is unlikely to protect children in the long term. It is time for parents and teachers to “Go wired” and use only ethernet cabled devices with children.
This article was written by Cris Rowan, BScBi, BScOT a biologist and pediatric occupational therapist passionate about changing the ways in which children use technology. Cris’s website is www.zonein.ca, blog www.movingtolearn.ca, and book www.virtualchild.ca. Cris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.