Oxford Arts Blog

The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data

Parents will worry, that is what parents do. But, according to Oxford Internet Institute researcher, Dr Matti Vuorre, the evidence base suggesting a negative impact of the use of technology on teenagers’ mental health is thin - at best.

Dr Vuorre and colleagues Dr Amy Orben and Professor Andy Przybylski have been studying the associations between technology use and adolescent mental health – and, according to new research, it is not all bad news, not at all.

It is popularly believed that new technology, particularly social media, is responsible for declining mental health among young people and a range of other social ills. But, says Dr Vuorre, concerns of this type are not new, nor are they well justified by current data.

Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced listening to radio crime dramas...would inspire lives of crime

Parents used to warn children that their eyes would turn square, if they watched too much television, and earlier generations were convinced that listening to radio crime dramas, such as Dick Tracy (special agent) would inspire young people to turn to lives of crime. 

Then, as now, says Dr Vuorre, the popular idea does not appear to be supported by hard evidence. The research, published last night,  used data from three large surveys to look into the lives of more than 400,000 young people in the UK and US.

In these surveys, young people report on their personal use of technology and various mental health-related issues. Using this large data set, the team of researchers set about investigating the associations between adolescents’ technology use and mental health problems, and whether they have increased over time.

According to Dr Vuorre, these survey responses do not establish a smoking gun link between the use of technology and mental health issues, nor do they show that technologies have become more harmful over time.

‘We did find some limited associations between social media use and emotional problems, for instance,’ he says. ‘But it is hard to know why they are associated. It could be a number of factors [perhaps people with problems spend more time on social media seeking peer support?]. Furthermore, there was very little evidence to suggest those associations have increased over time.’

In fact, according to the new research, ‘Technology engagement had become less strongly associated with depression in the past decade, but social-media use had become more strongly associated with emotional problems.’

The study concludes, ‘The argument that fast-paced changes to social media platforms and devices have made them more harmful for adolescent mental health in the past decade is, therefore, not strongly supported by current data either.’

These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not...it is difficult  conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives

‘These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult  conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time.’

Dr Vuorre says. ‘Scientists are working hard on these questions, but their work is made more difficult by the fact that most of the data collected on online behaviours remains hidden in technology companies’ data warehouses.’

He adds, ‘We need more transparent research collaborations between independent researchers and technology companies. Before we do, we are generally in the dark.’

The Redentore began as a feast – held on the day of the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer – to give thanks for the end of the terrible plague of 1576, which killed 50,000 people,

When will this all be over? As the number of COVID-related infections, hospitalisations and deaths reported in the UK continues to fall, the chorus grows ever louder for the abandonment of restrictions on everyday activity.

Summer holidays in Spain, crowded sporting arenas and nightclubbing, are held out as examples of normal life to which we can look forward. But, for many, it is the more mundane life they miss: meeting friends and relations indoors, having a coffee in a coffee shop, going to the library or cinema.

But the question of when the pandemic (or epidemic) is over is not as simple as it might appear.  It is a medical question, but determining what is an epidemic and when it has ended is also a political and social question.

In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways...sometimes the illness has gone but sometimes people have learned to live with it

In the past, epidemics have ended in a variety of ways – some in which the illness has gone and others in which it has not, but people have learned to live with it.

Oxford Historian Dr Erica Charters is leading a project looking at these complex questions. Some 40 researchers, from more than a dozen universities across the academic spectrum, have come together to study - ‘How Epidemics End’.

The team includes experts in a variety of past events which have wreaked havoc around the world – from the plague to TB to HIV/AIDs to cholera.. And this week the team is releasing a series of videos discussing what has happened in past epidemics.  The first three videos compare how different researchers study cholera and its ending, explaining the cholera epidemics which devastated countries including England in the 19th century, but more recently, Yemen.  

‘We have asked the question: how did epidemics end?’ says Dr Charters. ‘We have brought together longer term reflections on this and looked at the different ways of distinguishing the end – looking at epidemiological and mathematical models alongside political and social questions.

’But there is no one answer. Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?’

Everyone wants certainty and answers but it is not just a decision about a disease but a political decision: what will people live with?

Dr Erica Charters

In January, Dr Charters and Dr Kristin Heitman wrote, ‘Detailed research on past epidemics has demonstrated that they do not end suddenly; indeed, only rarely do the diseases in question actually end.’

 Dr Charters points out, ‘In the past, epidemics have ended in one of three ways.

‘People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs].’

As the numbers of infections continue to fall in the UK, although other countries are still experiencing severe illness, COVID appears to follow the pattern. But Dr Charters warns against ‘false endings’. And the historian, who specialises in the history of medicine, points out that some diseases may be considered an epidemic in some parts of the world but may be common elsewhere,  ‘Malaria is endemic in large parts of Africa but if there were cases in England, it would cause alarm.’

People begin to live with it [influenza]. It moves to another part of the world [the plague] or it is managed through medical treatment and no longer seen as an epidemic in that part of the world [HIV/AIDs]

It is this sense of alarm which underpins the pandemic (which is an epidemic on a global scale).  The January paper maintains, ‘Epidemics—like the recurring narratives they produce—throw a society's confusion, fears, and anxieties into high relief.’

It continues, ‘When communities are thrown into panic and turmoil by the outbreak of a new disease, when medical committees are convened and central governments spring into action, epidemics are understood in clear biological terms.... But at the end stages of epidemics, the disease is regarded through the filter of political, social, and economic dislocation—dislocations that have deepened as the epidemic progressed—articulating the processes by which policy decisions are debated and implemented, and the accommodations between scientific models and human behaviour.’

The World Health Organisation categorises it as a public health emergency of international concern. But, from a global perspective, it means different things to different groups at different times – not just as the disease spreads around the world but because within the same country, different groups will experience a disease differently.

So the end will also be different for different peoples. Dr Charters says, ‘It is unlikely that there will be a single end date.’

There may be biological markers, suggesting a decline in infections or excess deaths. People tried to track these in 17th century England, when the number of plague deaths fell and the population returned to London – rather prematurely.

But, says Dr Charters, in general, the end of epidemics can be traced to ‘when people resume social practices’. She adds, ‘When the city gates opened and groups returned.’

In general, the end of epidemics can be traced to when people resume social practices. When the city gates opened and groups returned

And she notes, there is also a falling off of evidence – as people stop recording the impact of the disease and go back to their previous occupations. 

According to the article ‘How epidemics end’, ‘Epidemics end once the diseases become accepted into people's daily lives and routines, becoming endemic—domesticated—and accepted. Endemic diseases typically lack an overarching narrative because they do not seem to require explanation. More often, they appear as integrated parts of the natural order of things.’

But, says Cr Charters, one of the research team points out that there have just as often been celebrations and thanksgiving to mark the end of epidemics - that they have not just fizzled out.

Endings were not always quiet,’ she says. ‘There have been celebrations and fireworks, thanksgiving...but most epidemics have ended when people just returned to their lives.'

See the videos here  How epidemics end | How Epidemics End (ox.ac.uk)

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

Professor Gascia Ouzounian

Contemporary art is replete with works which explore the relationships between sound and space, with ‘space’ understood in physical, sensorial, geographical, social, and political terms.

Today, I can plug my headphones into the façade of a building in Berlin called BUG, to hear how its materiality, made audible through the use of seismic sensors in the building’s infrastructure, changes over time and in response to atmospheric variations, weather and other environmental factors. In other words, I can listen to a building as it evolves over time and in relation to its surroundings.

I can listen to a building as it evolves over time and in relation to its surroundings

In suburban London, I can visit Vex, a building whose spiralling form is inspired by the music of Erik Satie and the methods of John Cage.

Electronic music, projected over loudspeakers, is played throughout the building. It is created from sounds recorded during the making of the building itself: the sounds of breaking ground, of pouring concrete. This literal musique concrète is lush and surprisingly beautiful. It is impossible to say where music begins and architecture ends.

In 2017, I could visit Silent Room, an acoustic refuge in a low- income neighbourhood in Beirut. This temporary structure, erected in a parking lot close to a highway, used acoustic panelling to reduce environmental noise, but it also featured a quiet, meditative soundtrack composed of everyday city sounds. The designer wanted to draw attention to the uneven ways in which noise affects rich and poor inhabitants of the city - how a politics of noise shapes the city and differently impacts upon the lives of its residents.

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

While these particular projects are formed at the intersection of music, art, architecture and urban design, many others take the form of sound recordings, compositions, performances, films, installations, sculptures, radio works, websites, and much more.

Today, I can take a listening tour of Bonn, following a map of unique acoustic features of the city created by Bonn’s ‘City Sound Artist’ in 2010. Or, I can take an ‘electrical walk’ in any number of cities while wearing specially designed headphones which make audible normally inaudible elements of urban infrastructure. During my walk, formerly silent objects such as surveillance cameras, ATMs, and transportation infrastructures, beat and resonate with the pulses and tones of electromagnetic energy.

Despite this striking profusion of creative work and research that takes place at the intersection of sound and space, our historical understanding of how sound came to be understood as spatial remains lacking. Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are.

Today we take for granted that sound is spatial, and that hearing is spatial: that it is possible to hear where sounds come from and how far or close they are

However, as recently as 1900, a popular scientific view held that sound itself could not relay ‘spatial attributes’, and that the human ear had physiological limitations which prevented it from receiving spatial information. Many psychologists believed it was through reasoning, or visual or haptic sensations, that an ‘auditory space’ was constructed.

In order to explore such striking shifts in perspective, Stereophonica: Sound and Space in Science, Technology, and the Arts (MIT Press) traces a history of thought and practice related to acoustic and auditory spatiality as they emerge in connection to such fields as philosophy, physics, physiology, psychology, music, architecture, and urban studies.

In the work, I track evolving ideas of acoustic and auditory spatiality (the spatiality of sound and hearing); and ideas that emerged in connection to particular kinds of spaces, acoustic and auditory technologies, musical and sonic cultures, experiences of hearing, and practices of listening.

My discussion begins in the 19th century, when scientists began systematically  to study the physiology and psychology of spatial hearing. It extends to the present day, when sound artists seek to reconfigure entire cities through sound, and the concept of ‘sonic urbanism’ circulates within and across the worlds of architecture, urban studies and sound studies. Rather than trace a linear trajectory through any one historical route, I revisit a series of historical episodes in which the understanding of sound and space were transformed:

  • the advent of stereo and binaural technologies in the 19th century;
  • the birth of acoustic defence during the First World War;
  • the creation of new stereo recording and reproduction systems in the 1930s;
  • sonic warfare in the Second World War;
  • the development of ‘spatial music’ and sound installation art in the 1950s and 1960s;
  • innovations in noise mapping and sound mapping; and
  • emergent modes of sonic urbanism (ways of understanding and engaging the city in relation to sound).

Each of these phenomena represents a distinct shift in how sound is created, experienced or understood in relation to space. Further, each sheds light upon evolving acoustic and auditory cultures, ways of listening, and changing ontologies of sound and space.

My aim is to cut into and across normally distinct histories, in order to show how various conceptions of acoustic and auditory spatiality have evolved over time and in connection to one another

By focusing on such transformative episodes, whether they last several years or several decades, my aim in Stereophonica is to set into dialogue various realms of thought and practice that bear upon contemporary ideas of acoustic and auditory spatiality, but that are normally kept distinct within such disciplines as philosophy, physics, engineering, music, and urban studies.

My aim is to cut into and across normally distinct histories, in order to show how various conceptions of acoustic and auditory spatiality have evolved over time and in connection to one another.

I therefore devote considerable attention to experimental projects, whether in science, music, art, or their interstitial spaces - including experiments that failed, were limited in their scope, had troubling ethical implications, or simply did not ‘succeed’ in entering mainstream discourses and canons, but that are nevertheless important because of their conceptual, technical, and aesthetic innovations.

 It is within these experimental practices, those that test the boundaries of a field, that I find particular interest, especially with respect to ideas that defied conventional thinking and, in some cases, put wider social or cultural conventions under pressure.

In contrast to discourses that understand ‘space’ as a void to be filled with sound, my discussion shows that acoustic and auditory spaces have never been empty or neutral, but instead have always been replete with social, cultural, and political meanings. The case studies are chosen to reflect a particular progression both within and across them: how spatial conceptions of sound and hearing were hypothesised, codified, problematised, and politicised.

Stereophonica reveals how different concepts of acoustic and auditory space were invented and embraced by scientific and artistic communities, and how the spaces of sound and hearing themselves were increasingly measured and rationalised, surveilled and scanned, militarised and weaponised, mapped and planned, controlled and commercialised - in short, modernised.

Professor Gascia Ouzounian is a musicologist with the Oxford Faculty of Music and a member of Lady Margaret Hall.

Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends

Concerns over missed education for young people have spread around the world with schools and colleges firmly shut for long stretches because of COVID-19.  In England, the Government has announced large-scale funding to help education recover from the devastation of the pandemic. As part of this, the very youngest children, who have poor oral language skills and have been particularly affected by the switch to online learning, will be able to access specialised help – key to academic success. 

It is widely recognised that language skills are fundamental to many aspects of cognitive and psychosocial development, and that poor language skills are a barrier to educational success. 

The current rollout of the NELI programme in English primary schools is a stunning example of how basic academic research can be translated into practical application at large scale

Developed by an Oxford team, led by Professors Charles Hulme and Maggie Snowling, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) programme improves oral language skills in young children. According to research by this group, there can be a transfer effect with oral language interventions, leading to improved reading comprehension.

As a result of official funding, it is hoped that all  primary schools in England that want it, will benefit from the Oxford oral language programme. Last autumn, the Department for Education announced a £9 million investment in the programme, with a further £8 million announced for next academic year.   In this academic year, this funding has enabled the programme to be delivered by some 6,500 schools.  Schools wishing to register interest, can do so here

The current rollout of the NELI programme in English primary schools is a stunning example of how basic academic research can be translated into practical application at large scale.

Children’s oral language skills are a critical foundation for the whole of formal education....Good language skills underlie a child’s ability to learn to read and to master arithmetic

Professor Charles Hulme

Professor Hulme says, ‘Children’s oral language skills are a critical foundation for the whole of formal education.  To learn in the classroom, children need to understand what is said to them and be able to express their thoughts and feelings.  Good language skills underlie a child’s ability to learn to read and to master arithmetic.’

Dr Gillian West, a member of the research team, comments, ‘Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends.’

Language skills can vary greatly among social groups. According to Professor Hulme, ‘It is well established that children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often enter school with weak language skills.  The NELI programme offers the potential to help reduce social inequalities in educational outcomes and can also be used effectively with children for whom English is an additional language.’

Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends

Dr Gillian West

The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.  

Last month, a study of NELI’s effects by Professor Hulme showed that the programme produced sizeable improvements in children’s language skills and small improvements in word reading skills.

Teachers and teaching assistants are trained to deliver the NELI programme using an online training programme, developed by the Oxford team, and delivered on the FutureLearn platform.   The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.  

These children receive the programme get two 30 minute group sessions each week and three 20 minute individual sessions. During these periods, the children are involved in speaking and listening activities including storytelling and learning new words. Once staff are trained, NELI can be implemented in schools year after year, benefitting generations of children.

Identifying those children who would benefit from the programme is key. Teachers need a way to identify language weaknesses when using the NELI programme. A  ‘LanguageScreen’ assessment app has been developed by Professor Hulme’s research group in collaboration with Dr Mihaela Duta and Dr Abhishek Dasgupta in Oxford’s Department of Computer Science.  It is now available to all schools via an Oxford spinout company (LanguageScreen.com).

Dr Duta says, ‘It is a great pleasure to bring software engineering to bear on an issue of such social importance.’

Children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often enter school with weak language skills.  The NELI programme offers the potential to help reduce social inequalities in educational outcomes and can also be used effectively with children for whom English is an additional language

Professor Hulme

The Education Endowment Foundation, with private equity enterprise ICG, provided funding  to develop online training for the programme, ensuring it could be offered in a social-distanced manner as well as at national scale. 

LanguageScreen runs on a tablet or phone and gives teachers an accurate and rapid assessment of a child’s language ability via a secure automated online report.  LanguageScreen will allow teachers to monitor the development of children’s language skills.

Although such questions would not normally feature in a university Classics course, ‘it was really amazing’, says the expert in Greek literature. ‘They were really curious about daily life in Ancient Greece

Lockdown learning, with school delivered online, may not be ideal, but it has enabled some highly-unusual lessons to take place. Oxford Classics professors have taken to the internet to engage in ‘Classical Conversations’ with school pupils across the country and the results have excited interest – in all concerned.

The Faculty of Classics Outreach Team has been offering 30 minute classes with an Oxford professor on a Classical subject of the school’s choice – or just a quick-fire question and answer session. And the response was almost immediate – once schools were convinced this offer was ‘for real’. In the last three months, some 600 children at 30 schools from Lancashire to Kent, Norfolk to Wiltshire have taken part. And many more conversations are scheduled over the coming months.

Oxford Classics professors have taken to the internet to engage in ‘Classical Conversations’ with school pupils across the country and the results have excited interest – in all concerned

According to Dr Neil McLynn, head of Classics, the idea was to use the virtual learning of lockdown to ‘zoom' into lessons, in the nicest possible way, giving students a chance to have a conversation with an Oxford expert about their favourite subjects. And, he says, the Faculty has been thrilled.

The project matches primary and secondary school and home-educated students with leading Oxford academics. Topics have ranged from ‘Female characters in the Odyssey’ to ‘Magic and Superstition in Rome’.

But some have been less prosaic, Dr Sophie Bocksberger took part in a Q&A session with a group of primary-aged children. She recalls there were some challenging questions, ‘One boy asked about the toilets in Ancient Greece [he thought everyone would want to know]...somebody else asked if the Greeks had pets and someone asked which was the best god.’

Although such questions would not normally feature in a university Classics course, ‘it was really amazing’, she says. ‘They were really curious about daily life in Ancient Greece and it worked well. I tried to show how we know things, through archaeology or texts, rather than just giving answers.’

One boy asked about the toilets in Ancient Greece...somebody else asked if the Greeks had pets and someone asked which was the best god

Dr Sophie Bocksberger

[In case of interest, toilets were receptacles, emptied into the street, although wealthier Greeks may have sat on marble benches.]

Students, meanwhile, have found the sessions ‘awesome’, ‘really engaging’, ‘very enjoyable’ and ‘fun’, according to their teachers. Many commented that, getting to share their ideas and talk with an Oxford Classicist has, not only, helped them in their current academic work, but has also helped to prepare for the future by giving them an idea of what further classical study might be like.

Dr McLynn also faced a ‘free fire’ round of questions on any subject, but with secondary school pupils. He says, ‘They were full of interest in the Roman world.’

Questions included: who wore togas, farming and food in the UK during Roman times.

‘It was so interesting,’ he says.

A key aim has been to encourage and enthuse school children about the Classics and, the teachers insist, it has been effective

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson 

Some Classical Conversations have centred on the GCSE or A Level syllabuses, with academics sharing their knowledge on topics such as Greek Tragedy, the Parthenon, and the Julio-Claudian Emperors. Others have delved into topics as varied as ‘Persuasive Language in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar’, life in Ancient Egypt, and ‘Feathered Creatures in Mythology’.

In another lesson, Dr McLynn met a group of sixth form Latinists who were studying Juvenal.

‘It involved some very hard questions,’ he remembers.

The project has been received with considerable enthusiasm and imagination in schools and in the university, where the Faculty is keen to encourage applications from a wide variety of applicants – even those without experience of Classics.

One Q&A, involving Professor Peter Stewart and a group of Classical Civilisation students, took place in a virtual ancient theatre. And Professor Armand D’Angour chatted with a class of secondary students about Ancient Greek music.

Dr Gail Trimble, meanwhile, says, ‘It has been really effective...the students have a chance to talk about the subject in a broader way and, for me, joining a lesson without being a ‘visitor’ in a school, having to be looked after, has meant schools got more out of it.’

They talked about heroism and the Roman political context – giving students a taste of what Classics at university might be like

Dr Gail Trimble

She spoke with a group of year 12s, who are studying Virgil’s Aeneid, and they had some ‘very bright questions’.  She says, rather than looking narrowly at the text as though it were an A level lesson, they talked about heroism and the Roman political context – giving students a taste of what Classics at university might be like.

Schools too are very positive. According to one school, it was ‘very much a conversation – we could ask questions and input our own ideas whilst being guided and taught’, which meant that ‘the conversation was open to lots of different avenues and interpretations.’

Meanwhile, a teacher says, our Oxford expert ‘answered all questions with humour and intelligence and the students really loved it. I think they also loved having an expert in the field.’

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Research Fellow in Classics Education, says. ‘These 30-minute sessions offer students different viewpoints and ideas to enrich their knowledge and enjoyment of the topic. They might add detail or draw links between different parts of the literature, art and history which they find interesting.’

A key aim of the project has been to encourage and enthuse school children about the Classics and, the teachers insist, it has been effective. The potential for sparking interest is what energises the Classics team.

During school years, there can be moments of direct personal contact with people outside of school which can be transformative

Dr Neil McLynn

Dr McLynn maintains, ‘During school years, there can be moments of direct personal contact with people outside of school which can be transformative.‘

You can find out more about the project here https://clasoutreach.web.ox.ac.uk/classical-conversations.

If teachers would like to request a Classical Conversation, please email outreach@classics.ox.ac.uk. Preference will be given to state-maintained schools but we welcome requests from all teachers.