Stay on the couch or go for a run? There’s an app that can calculate the bigger risk

 We know running is better for you than  
lounging but how might it affect our lifespan? Marcella Cheng

Humans are much worse at estimating risk than we think we are. While we overestimate the risk of rare but catastrophic occurrences, such as being attacked by a shark, many of us seriously underestimate the risk of behaviours that reduce our lifespan, such as smoking.

These errors of judgement are potentially costly, leading to bad decisions and many premature deaths.

Now there is an app designed to help us avoid rushing toward an early grave. Risk Navigator allows you to select an activity and find out immediately, in clearly understood terms, the risk (or benefit) this has on your health.

You can look up and compare different types of risks on the Risk Navigator app. Risk Navigator

To get full value from the app it is important to understand that there are two types of risk: acute and chronic. Acute risks are those that may kill you immediately, such as a car accident.

Chronic risks don’t kill you immediately but rob you of your life a little at a time. If you choose to eat an unhealthy diet, for instance, you may appear to be getting away with this, but you risk developing illnesses in future that may shorten your life.

The problem is we value things a whole lot less when they occur in the future. Distant events are abstract – we don’t know how and when they might affect us – so we care less about them. This is is known as temporal discounting.

How it works

Acute risks can be measured in a unit called “micromorts”, which represents a one in a million chance of death. It’s a simple way to convert acute risks into units that are easy for us to understand.

Marcella Cheng

Chronic risks can be assessed using “microlives”, a unit of measurement developed by Cambridge University Professor David Spiegelholter. A microlife is the probability of something you do increasing or decreasing your expected adult lifespan by 30 minutes.

For many people, expressing chronic risks into a cost to your lifespan in the here and now makes it much easier to understand these types of risk.

What are the biggest risks?

Looking at the activities in the app, we can see that smoking is just about the worst choice you can make for your health. Every two cigarettes that you smoke takes one microlife (or 30 mins) off your lifespan.

Every two cigarettes that you smoke takes one microlife (or 30 mins) off your lifespan. Marcella Cheng

In contrast, eating vegetables is clearly very good for you, with each serve increasing your lifespan by two hours. This is a massive health gain and clearly should be a strong motivator to eat healthily.

Eating vegetables is clearly very good for you, with each serve increasing your lifespan by two hours. Marcella Cheng

Interestingly, the most current data indicates that drinking coffee is also good for you, though with limited health gains. Each cup of coffee (assuming you drink moderately), is associated with approximately a ten-minute gain in your lifespan.

Even drinking alcohol may add to your lifespan, with each serve adding 30 minutes to the length of your life. But this health gain is only true for the first drink; subsequent drinks shorten lifespan.

Marcella Cheng

Alcohol also poses an acute risk when consumed in excess. Binge drinking gives you a 25 in one-million chance of sudden death (25 micromorts).

Sitting on the sofa for one hour reduces your lifespan by about 15 minutes. Alternatively, if you decide to exercise, the latest data suggests that the first 20 minutes of exercise increases your lifespan by about one hour. Subsequent exercise is still beneficial but the biggest payoff comes with getting out there and doing that first 20 minutes.

Sitting on the sofa for one hour reduces your lifespan by about 15 minutes. Marcella Cheng

Of course, going for the run may not always be the best choice – it may be raining or you might not be in the mood – but over time you can start to see how entrenched patterns of behaviour can impact the length of your life.

Keep in mind that that while there are some limitations associated with these estimates of risk, which are based on averages across the whole population, they can provide us with a greater perspective on the magnitude of the risk associated with the things we do.

We shouldn’t necessarily be risk averse or neurotic about exposure to risks. Life is all about making decisions about risks and rewards, and we all have a different threshold for what we consider acceptable risks to take. Even if we don’t always make the healthiest decisions, at least we can make ones that are fully informed.



This article was written by:
Hassan Vally
Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology, La Trobe University

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

AI is learning from our encounters with nature – and that’s a concern

 In the Global Biodiversity Information Facility   
there are 682,447 records of human encounters with dandelions.

The idea seems wonderful – a phone app that allows you to take a photo of a plant or animal and receive immediate species identification and other information about it. A “Shazam for nature” so to speak.

We are building huge repositories of data related to our natural environments, making this idea a reality.

But there are ethical concerns that should be addressed: about how data is collected and shared, who has the right to share it and how we use public data for machine learning.

And there’s a bigger concern – whether such apps change what it means to be human.

Encounters with dandelions

Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist and author, once arranged to take a group of his patients on a field trip to the New York Botanic Garden. One of his patients, a severely autistic young man named Steve, hadn’t stepped outside the facility for years. He never spoke; indeed, the doctors believed him incapable of speech.

In the gardens with Sacks, however, the invigorated Steve plucked a flower, and to the surprise of everyone, uttered the word “dandelion.”

Over the last decade, this affinity so many of us feel for nature – what the famed biologist Edward Wilson termed “biophilia” – has resulted in an explosion of big data. In the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF, an online database run out of Copenhagen) there are 682,447 records of human encounters with dandelions. Overall, the database holds more than 850 million observations of over a million different species of flora and fauna.

The whale shark is the world’s largest fish species. from www.shutterstock.com

It’s an impressive achievement, a gestating, global catalogue of life. It allows us to see the world in new ways. For example just this year, thanks to the more than 42,000 recorded sightings from more than 5,000 participants using WhaleShark.org, we’ve gained unprecedented insight into the behaviour of the world’s largest fish species. Or on an bigger scale, the millions of bird observations generated through an app called eBird have allowed us to visualise the precise migratory routes of over a hundred different bird species.

At the same time, in an outcome largely unforeseen by its early collectors, info-engineers are using the data to train artificial intelligence (AI), particularly computer vision apps to help us interpret the plants and animals we see around us. And these tools are raising some interesting, sometimes troubling questions.

Joseph Banks in your pocket

In one sense, of course, such tools are magical. The fictional tricorder of Star Trek is a magnificent device, scanning alien life forms, making them familiar. If we had a version on Earth, it’d be the equivalent of a pocket-sized Joseph Banks, a trusty sidekick of discovery, filling us with a sense of confidence and control.

In China the latest version of the Baidu browser (a so-called Chinese Google) comes with a plant recognition feature built into it. Point your camera at a dandelion and you’ll see the Chinese name for it – 蒲公英. Such apps are triggering a new wave of botanical interest among the general population in China.

But there are also questions about these AI tools interfering with our ability – perhaps a human need – to easily transfer our unique nature expertise to, or gain expertise from, other people. Is the amount of resources going into developing AI matched by what we invest in developing ecological literacy within the billions of supercomputers in peoples’ skulls?


Read more: How do you know that what you know is true? That’s epistemology


There are questions about data bias. A disproportionate number of data collectors – often called “citizen scientists” – are first world hobbyists, birdwatchers, camera geeks. Typically then, the data comes from a relatively non-diverse sector of society.

There are questions about ownership, data appropriation, human agency. Who’s going to own and control the AI? Will the people whose expertise has trained the AI be fairly acknowledged, respected, rewarded?

What plant is that? from www.shutterstock.com

Or is all that data, as the US economist Philip Mirowski recently argued, nothing more than “the donation of unpaid work to privately owned entities” – entities who will digest and then regurgitate the information into yet another online product we can’t live without? If you search the terms of popular citizen science apps, you’re unlikely to find any mention of how your data might be used to train AI systems.

Empire building

There’s a sense of déjà vu here. The botanical classification conducted by such scientific luminaries as Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks – the book Systema Naturae was a sort of GBIF of its day – is often associated with the big data activity of empire building. As explained by the essayist Anne Fadiman in Collecting Nature, botanists would travel to remote parts of the world, find a species which had been known by a local name for centuries:

[…] rechristen it with a Latin binomial, and presto! It became a tiny British colony.

Subsequent generations, meanwhile, would grow up in a world where the only meaningful descriptions of nature existed in empire-approved systems of classified truth: museums, libraries, the biology labs of universities.

“The real danger [of AI],” writes the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, “is that we will overestimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence”.

Perhaps we’ll cede control; perhaps we’ll have it wrested away. For the developer of nature identification apps, what incentive exists to disabuse us of the Star Trek Tricorder illusion?

The Colorado-based PlantSnap, for example, claims to be training its AI on “50,000 new species per month, and will have every species on Earth covered by the end of 2017”. You could argue this is not just misleading, it’s impossible. A significant portion of plants are yet to be discovered, and far more have yet to be photographed in the wild.

What is human perception?

According to a developer of the Merlin BirdID app, a computer vision tool trained on eBird’s collection of more than 70 million bird photos,

the state-of-the-art in computer vision is rapidly approaching that of human perception.

But what is human perception? It’s easy to forget that each record in all that training data represents – like Sack’s autistic patient in New York – a special act of observation, a sudden spark of curiosity, a unique moment of seeing that belongs to the individual.

One thing’s for sure: when it comes to developing AI, there’s an urgent need for more thinking, more consideration, a broader diversity of viewpoints. In developing AI tools, can we program them to value the creative act of human perception – the authentic, the spontaneous, the unpredictable.

Or maybe as Amy Webb, a tech futurist at New York University, has recently proposed, we should establish data sanctuaries. Here, like in nature reserves, our data could roam wild and free, forever untouched by AI, governments, corporate interests. Perhaps a similar space – or a duration of time between data input and response – is needed to protect our unique relationship with the natural world.

The scent of violet ‘makes you want everything’ but ‘makes you sick of things a minute later.’ from www.shutterstock.com

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the lovelorn bachelor Orsino, makes an interesting observation of violets. Their scent, he declares, is like romantic love, it

makes you want everything, but it makes you sick of things a minute later, no matter how good they are.

It’s an astonishing insight, and four centuries later, this insight was scientifically confirmed: the beta-ionone in violets, researchers discovered, produces an anosmic affect in the human olfactory system, allowing you to perceive the scent one moment, only for it to vanish (like romantic love) the next.

This exploration of the natural world – this observing, comparing, playing, discovering, loving – is an impulse that’s core to our humanity, and one, I’d suggest, we should be careful not to lose.


This article was written by:

Image of Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson – [Communications Scientist and Scholar, Australian National University]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The evolutionary history of men and women should not prevent us from seeking gender equality

 Studies of twins let us see the  
contributions that genes, upbringing and culture make to behaviour.

Compared to women, men are more aggressive and enjoy being promiscuous.

These are just two examples of the sorts of statements that are linked to research findings from evolutionary psychologists.

If such conclusions are accurate, it raises concerns that our biology might prevent us from progressing towards gender equality. But I argue this is not the case, and that we need to understand our evolutionary history in order to overcome gender inequality.

What is evolutionary psychology?

Research shows that females and males – including girls and boys, as well as women and men – have many psychological differences. The field of evolutionary psychology attempts to explain these differences in terms of biological adaptations. In essence, this means examining the differing reproductive challenges faced by the sexes throughout our species’ history, and linking these with psychological and behavioural characteristics.

For instance, evolutionary psychologists claim that males are more aggressive than females because they can gain greater access to females by competing violently with other males. Males are thought to be more willing to engage in casual sex because they can greatly increase their reproductive output by doing so, whereas females benefit more from being choosy due to the demands of pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Females are more likely to prefer a partner who is taller and of higher status, because such males are better protectors and providers. Males are more likely to prefer a physically attractive partner, where the features considered most attractive in females are signals of higher fertility, such as youth and physical health.

It is quite possible that psychological, behavioural, and physical sex differences make men more likely to dominate women, and women less likely to resist domination from men.

Sex differences are, of course, a matter of degree rather than kind. For example: yes, more men than women are tall, but that’s not to say that women can’t be tall, and men can’t be short. It’s just that when calculated as an average, men are taller and women are shorter. The same principle applies to the differences described above.

Not all men and women fit the average characteristics of men and women. from www.shutterstock.com

Nature or nurture?

Many people reject explanations for sex differences based on evolutionary biology, preferring to attribute such differences to culture and social context.

However, we find evidence of such sex differences all over the world. Furthermore, explaining something as “just culture” doesn’t explain why a given cultural norm exists in the first place. It also fails to explain why we find sex differences in behaviour in many non-human animals.

There is no reason to think that the ape Homo sapiens is a special case, where everything can be explained by culture and nothing by biology. Finally, twin studies suggest that a large degree of individual differences can be explained by genetics – and not solely by the circumstances in which you are raised, and live.

The rejection of evolutionary explanations for sex differences may often be an emotional response: people feel hostile toward these ideas because the picture they paint of human nature isn’t a pretty one. But the fact that something is unappealing doesn’t make it false. Some feminists might worry that such explanations imply that if gender inequality is natural then it is inevitable, and perhaps even justifiable.

Natural = necessary?

Regardless of whether you find evolutionary explanations of sex differences convincing, is there reason to be concerned that they might be true? Does a biological basis for sex differences imply that gender inequality is “determined” by our biology?

If you accept the evolutionary explanation for these sex differences, then you might be inclined to conclude that gender inequality has a biological basis. If this is your view, then perhaps you could accept that male domination of females is in some sense “natural” for humans, as it is for many other species, including our closest living relatives.

But just because male domination may be in some sense natural for our species does not make it necessary. This is a classic case of the “is-ought” fallacy — the false conclusion that what is obligatory and even “right” is determined by what is natural.

Evolution is a mindless process that does not obey principles of morality. The “survival of the fittest” simply describes the process of getting genes successfully into the gene pool. It operates regardless of what is right or wrong, or what makes us happy. The fact that something might be human nature doesn’t mean it is good, and in many cases, it is clearly the contrary.

Sugar and fat taste so good – but that doesn’t make it ‘right’ to eat them. from www.shutterstock.com

Understanding human nature

It is a mistake to assume that an evolutionary explanation of gender inequality is bad news for feminism. Explaining human behaviour does not equate to justifying it or defending it. But if we want to change our society for the better, we probably need an accurate understanding of human nature.

Importantly, evolutionary explanations do not imply that human behaviour is “determined” by our genes, and therefore inflexible. Evolution has given us a preference for foods that are high in sugar, which were rare in the environments in which our species evolved. But this doesn’t mean we can’t exercise self-control and avoid those foods in the modern environments where they are in ready supply. Our desires for such foods are also flexible; the extent to which we crave them depends on how much of them we are accustomed to consuming.

We could approach gender inequality in much the same frame of mind. Perhaps our evolutionary past inclines males to dominate females, and females to be deferential to males. But recognising our history as the source of these gender differences is not to accept them as our future. We are not mindless automata, doomed to slavishly oblige our instincts and impulses.

Many societies have made progress toward gender equality, despite having to work hard to achieve it. If we want to continue that progress, we must understand the origins of the inequality we wish to fight. It’s much harder to change our behaviour if we are not aware of why we do it. This idea was perhaps expressed best by the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, in his book The Moral Animal:

Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step towards understanding that – in many realms, not just sex – we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer…
I don’t think I’m spoiling the end of the movie by noting here that the puppeteer seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets.

Our quest towards progress and justice in all areas, including gender equality, requires awareness and understanding of the forces that have made us who we are.


This article was written by”
Image of Beatrice Alba Beatrice Alba – [Research fellow, La Trobe University]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

No sign of alien life ‘so far’ on the mystery visitor from space, but we’re still looking

 An artist’s impression of `Oumuamua, assuming it’s  
a rock. ESO/M. Kornmesser

The mystery object discovered earlier this year travelling through our Solar system is showing no signs of any alien life, despite plenty of efforts to look and listen for a signal.

Perhaps it’s ironic that the object should arrive in a year when we celebrated the 100th anniversary (on December 16) of the birth of science fiction author Arthur C Clarke.

One of his most popular novels, the award-winning Rendezvous with Rama, describes the high-speed entry of a cylindrical object into the Solar system. It’s initially thought to be an asteroid but a subsequent exploration reveals it to be an alien spaceship.

Exploring ‘Oumuamua

Astronomers named our Solar system visitor ‘Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian for “scout” or “messenger” as it was fist detected by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope.

Tiny and very faint, this fast moving object (centre) was captured by astronomers as it passed through our Solar system. Queen’s University Belfast

From our distant exploration of ‘Oumuamua we know it’s a red-brown, cigar-shaped object, about 400 metres long, and is moving so fast that it must have started its journey in some distant stellar system.

But we still have no idea what it is.

We know it’s not a comet, because it has no halo, and we know it’s not a normal asteroid, because we’ve never seen one that is so elongated – about ten times longer than it is wide. And its speed (about 100,000km per hour) rules out an origin within the Solar system or the Oort cloud, where comets come from.

Aliens from another world?

As scientists, we have to keep an open mind. For example, could it be an alien spacecraft? This might seem the stuff of comic-book fiction. Yet we know there are other Earth-like planets out there, and some may host other civilisations. We must at least consider the possibility that it is an artificial object from one of these civilisations.

That would also be consistent with the cigar shape. We know that the best shape for a large interstellar spacecraft is not like the fictional Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame, but more likely is elongated to minimise the damage from collisions with interstellar dust.

The USS Enterprise is a great shape for a Christmas tree decoration, 
not so great shape for a real spacecraft. Flickr/JD Hancock 

The only problem with this idea is that this object is not gliding smoothly through our Solar system, but is tumbling head over heels, about once every eight hours. So if it is an alien spacecraft, it’s in trouble.

How can we tell what it is? The best way would be to get a good photo of it, but it is so far away that even the Hubble Space Telescope just sees a speck of reddish-brown light. And it is moving too fast to mount a space mission to get closer. Already it is starting to head out of the Solar system.

Listening in for signals

If it is an alien spacecraft, perhaps we might detect some radio signals from it. And if it’s in trouble, we might expect to hear a distress signal. Over the past few weeks, radio telescopes around the world have been straining to catch some whiff of radio emission.

The telescopes are well equipped for this job, as they are already engaged in the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The first serious SETI search was made in 1960 by the radio astronomer Frank Drake, and SETI has continued on the world’s largest telescopes ever since.

The search continues methodically outwards from the Sun, with no detection so far, and yet SETI enthusiasts remain optimistic, pointing out that we have only searched a tiny fractionof the stars in our galaxy.

The first search for signals from ‘Oumuamua was by the SETI Institute, using the Allen Telescope Array. They hoped they might detect some evidence of an artificial transmission – perhaps a series of pulses, or a narrow-bandwidth signal. But nothing was found.

A much larger search was made by the Breakthrough Foundation, which uses the Australian radio telescope (“The Dish”) operated by CSIRO at Parkes, New South Wales, and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, in the United States.

The passage of ‘Oumuamua through our Solar system.

Because ‘Oumuamua is in the Northern sky, Green Bank can see it more easily than Parkes. Green Bank is still searching for signals from ‘Oumuamua, but “so far” has drawn a blank.

All attempts so far to detect a signal have been unsuccessful. The observations are so sensitive that even a mobile phone on board ‘Oumuamua would have been easily detected.

But so far, nothing. As ‘Oumuamua heads back out into interstellar space, the attempts will wind down and the telescopes will return to their normal duties.

So what is ‘Oumuamua?

One thing we know is that ‘Oumuamua isn’t just a rock. It is the first interstellar object we’ve ever found in the Solar system, and its elongated shape means it is totally unlike a normal asteroid.

So it probably isn’t part of the natural process of planetary formation. The most likely explanation is that it is a giant shard of rock of unknown origin – perhaps debris from an interplanetary collision.

But we cannot discount the possibility that it really is a spacecraft – perhaps one that got into trouble a long time ago and its corpse continues to tumble for eternity through the vastness of interstellar space.

Searches for signals from it will continue until it leaves us for ever, and perhaps something may still turn up. But the chances are that it will forever be a mystery.

What has changed is that we now know that such interstellar interlopers exist. One estimateis that there could be 10,000 such objects passing through the Solar system at any time.

If this is correct, then the hunt is on for more interstellar objects, and it won’t be long before we find another. Then we will see a new field of study open up as astronomers seek to understand their properties and origin. Will we find debris from planetary collisions? Or will we eventually find space junk from other civilisations and begin our own Rendezvous with Rama?


This article was written by:
Ray Norris – [Professor, School of Computing, Engineering, & Maths, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

From testosterone to dogs, and physics for babies: five fascinating books in 2017

 Happy reading this summer break.

In my mild-mannered persona as an academic in science education, I teach and research ways that science can be better taught in Australia and globally.

But every year I also explore the world of science books. I scope what’s new and interesting for my not-for-profit science book blog, and the Big Ideas Book Club I help run in Melbourne.

In 2017, five books in particular grabbed my attention, covering the fields of psychology, biology, history and physics.

How men and women behave

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds, by Cordelia Fine

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds. Allen and Unwin, Author provided

This book won the Royal Society Book Prize in 2017. The author is University of Melbourne’s Cordelia Fine, an academic working in historical and philosophical studies with a background in experimental psychology.

With discussion of feminism in the media on a regular basis, this book provides an important critique of previous research that has linked many underlying societal assumptions about testosterone to explain behaviour of both men and women. For example, “men engage more in risk-taking behaviour”.

Many of us assume that science is done without prejudice, but Fine highlights how social factors influence what research and concepts are considered important. This can compound an over-simplified notion of how testosterone affects us both biologically and socially.

Fine covers a wide range of topics in this short book, and often I found myself wanting to know more. But I think she successfully achieves her aim of getting us to reconsider some assumptions in our everyday lives. She helps the reader realise that when it comes to testosterone, things are a little bit more complicated than we may have assumed.

Where dogs came from

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary scientists and a Siberian tale of jump-started evolution, by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut
How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) University of Chicago Press, Author provided
This book is at the top of my holiday reading list. It’s part of a wave of science books directed at understanding the inner minds of dogs, their behaviour and their evolution.
Growing up with chihuahuas in the house, it can be difficult to reconcile how my family dog had somehow evolved from the wolf. While foxes are not wolves, the question of how wild animals can be domesticated was investigated by a team of researchers in Siberia, commencing in 1959, led by Dmitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut. The latter is currently head of the research group at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and one of the authors of this book.

The premise was quite simple: to recreate the process of domestication from wolves to dogs – a process that is estimated to span 15,000 years – by selecting and breeding foxes on the basis of their tameness.

Trut and co-author Dugatkin (a biologist and science writer) write about the history, politics and outcomes of this experiment, including genetic, behavioural and physical changes seen in wild foxes as they became tame foxes with floppy ears, curly tails and an interest in human companionship.

This looks perfect for anyone interested in the history of dog-kind, and in how scientists answer questions about our relationship with our closest companions.

Women deciphering military codes

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, by Liza Mundy

Code Girls. Hachette Book Group, Author provided

Code Girls is one of several recent books that tell stories about women’s involvement in history and science – others include Hidden Figures (2016), The Radium Girls (2016), Rise of the Rocket Girls (2016), and The Girls of Atomic City (2013). The previously untold stories of these remarkable women are being recorded as they get older, and as previously classified documents are shared with the public.

This particular book tells the story of some 10,000 women who were recruited by US military intelligence during World War II to decipher Japanese and German military codes. A great opportunity for highly educated women, they were taken from around the country and moved to live in dormitories in Washington and Arlington. Here, they had to deal with sexism, bureaucracy, relationships and new-found freedom.

To prepare the book, author Liza Mundy – a journalist who has written for the Washington Post – interviewed 20 of these code girls, who over 70 years ago had taken a vow of secrecy about their work.

Due to the age of the women, Mundy worked diligently to locate them:

I literally cold-called most of the women, and they were delighted to hear from someone who wanted to know about this.
I was struck by the number of adult sons who were really proud of what their mothers had done and had wanted them to tell the story forever.

This book captures the highs and lows of these brave women, and celebrates their rich and varied impact on generations of women working in science and technology.

A journey through mass

Mass: The quest to understand matter from Greek atoms to quantum fields, by Jim Baggott

Mass. Oxford University Press, Author provide

Mass is one of those terms that many of us first encounter in primary school, but what is it, really?

Popular UK science writer (and former scientist) Jim Baggott takes us on a journey through mass. He presents early philosophical considerations, how mass influences the elements of the periodic table, and then to modern considerations of mass that have come from recent work from quantum physics, field theory and the standard model.

Typically, we consider that mass is a property that all things “possess”, but Baggott asks us to reconsider this idea, and to think that mass is an outcome of what things “do”.

If this has left you scratching your head, don’t worry, Baggott is a skilled writer, as Kevin Orrman-Rossiter writes in his review,

I found his concluding chapter “Mass without mass” to be a great example of his writing in Mass. In this he brings us to the question of matter – via a familiar and everyday substance – frozen water, an ice-cube. He asks “What is this cube made of? What is responsible for its mass?” Using this simple example, he recaps and brings to a prosaic conclusion what is an enthralling, philosophically deep and scientifically rich, story.

Good for chewing, and learning

Quantum Physics for Babies, by Chris Ferrie

Quantum Physics for Babies. Source Books Inc, Author provided

This is part of the Baby University series of board books written for babies.

Author Chris Ferrie is an academic from the University of Technology Sydney, who conducts research into quantum physics.

The question immediately comes to mind: “can you teach quantum physics to babies?”. My immediate answer would be “no”, but that isn’t Ferrie’s intention. He wants the book to be a starting point of exploration of a wider scientific world for children, but also for parents to dip their toe into an area they might feel uncomfortable with. He says,

many parents I talk to find mathematics and science scary. Whether it is intentional or not, they steer [their children] away from these topics.

I purchased the Baby University series of books for my little person, who likes to chew them. But with him, I have enjoyed the colourful and varied diagrams that represent the complex quantum concepts with minimal text.

The book is a way for parents and children together to explore science concepts and connect to the ideas and representations that they use. Science has its own language of words and images, and the earlier we explore these, the less mysterious and unknowable science will seem to be.

These are just a selection of the many science books that come out every year to enlighten, enthral and entertain us. I struggled to suggest only five books.

When you choose a book to get you through the holiday break, make sure you have a look at what science has on offer, whether it’s about birds, space, the human body, psychology or robots. Science offers us a new perspective on the world – one that is intriguing, affirming and full of life, it’s not just about equations and numbers.


This review was written by:
Image of George ArandaGeorge Aranda – [Lecturer in Science Education, Deakin University]

 

 

 

 

Thinking of taking up WeChat? Here’s what you need to know

 Australia was one of the first offshore 
markets targeted by WeChat Pay.

WeChat is the most popular social media app in China. Since 2011, it has transformed from a messaging tool to an all-in-one super portal, with more than 900 million monthly active users. Its parent company, Tencent, is one of the most valuable technology companies in the world.

WeChat’s success has been powered by the platform’s mobile payment service, Wechat Pay, which assists with every aspect of a user’s life – from shopping for clothes and hailing taxis, to organising hospital appointments and ordering food deliveries.

Now, demand from Chinese tourists is increasing its uptake in Australia, and Australians are using WeChat too. Here’s what you need to know if you plan to use it.


A WeChat promotional video.

China is the market leader in mobile payment

recent study shows that 84% of people in China are willing and able replace cash with mobile payment. In 2016, 38 trillion Yuan (A$7.5 trillion) was exchanged via mobile payment – a sum 50 times larger than the United States, the world’s second biggest market.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping vows to make China a cyber superpower, Chinese tech companies are extending their ambitions to build a cash-free economy beyond the border. To date, WeChat has successfully launched its payment service in 15 countries.

Australia is a popular destination for Chinese tourists and students and it was one of the first offshore markets WeChat Pay targeted. In 2016, Chinese tourists spent A$9.2 billion in Australia, and this figure is expected grow to A$13 billion by 2020.

Figures from China-Australia Year of Tourism 2017. Tourism Australia

Recently, nine Australian cross-border payment service providers have partnered with WeChat Pay to connect Australian merchants to Chinese consumers. WeChat Pay allows local merchants to receive payments to their Australian accounts within a shorter time frame and at a lower transaction cost than credit cards.

Chemist Warehouse’s online store in China (Screen Shot December 14, 2017 at 9:30am)

More than 10,000 shops and restaurants in Australia are using the WeChat Pay system. Most early overseas adopters of this service are duty free shops and Chinese restaurants, but in Australia it is also common to see the WeChat pay option available in pharmacies.

Due to the high demand in China for Australian-made baby formula and health supplements, a visit to a pharmacy to stock up is often on a Chinese tourist’s “must do list” when visiting Australia.

Exporting mobile payment to the world

At this stage, only customers with Chinese bank accounts can use WeChat to make payments, so the global push still largely relies on Chinese consumers. However, the app’s latest venture in Malaysia suggests the company is now planning to target overseas domestic users.

In late November, WeChat obtained an e-payment license in Malaysia that will allow locals to use Malaysian banks to pay. This will make Malaysia WeChat’s first offshore market whereby all of the platform services can be made available to local users.

Concerns about censorship and surveillance

Although the Chinese Communist Party urges its firms to expand into global markets, the party’s intimate relationship with China’s tech sector has made overseas consumers wary.

Tech products from China, such as affordable smartphones, are regularly accused of having security flaws and even claimed to be tools for government spying. In Early December, the Indian government reportedly blacklisted WeChat, together with another 41 apps, categorising them as spyware.

Although there is no firm evidence to prove that these products have actually been used for government spying, such suspicions are not entirely groundless. Beijing has a dark history of pressuring tech companies to assist with information surveillance.

One famous case was Yahoo’s complicity in Beijing’s persecution of two dissidents in the early 2000s. More recent reports suggest that private conversations on WeChat are sometimes monitored by the Chinese police.

Lately, under pressure from Beijing, Apple removed 674 VPN applications – tools that can be used to circumvent censorship – from its Chinese app store.

It is not unusual for internet companies to conduct censorship according to local law, but in a country like China the law can be used to persecute dissidents and activists. Arguably, tech companies are as much victims of the system as users. But as long as the party state controls their right to operate in the Chinese market, they will continue to make profit at the cost of users’ freedom of speech.

Tips for using WeChat in Australia

According to WeChat’s own claims, user data is not monitored or stored by the company, as long as there is no requirement from the Chinese authorities. However, Australian users should keep the following in mind:

  • Once you register your account in China, your communication on WeChat is always censored – even if you connect your WeChat to an Australian number. The most common method of censorship on WeChat is keyword blocking, which means messages containing sensitive words, such as “Tiananmen June 4” and “free Tibet”, won’t be received.
  • WeChat accounts registered outside China as an “overseas account” are not censored according to the same strict standards that apply to Chinese users. However, when you use WeChat to communicate with a Chinese user, it’s a different story. A recent study from the Citizen Lab suggests that messages containing censored keywords will still be banned if they are sent to a Chinese account.
  • In September 2017, China launched new regulations for online chat groups that make the group chat admin liable for the information shared by its group members. Content violation on Wechat can include information identified as rumour by Chinese authorities, messages mentioning politically sensitive topics, and information related to organising protests. Keep this in mind when sending information to a WeChat group hosted by your friend in China.

Until tech companies are willing and able to stand up for the rights of their users, it’s important to educate yourself about what you’re signing up for.


This article was written by:
Image of Meg Jing ZengMeg Jing Zeng – [PhD candidate, Queensland University of Technology]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Facebook’s new Messenger Kids app could be good for digital literacy

 Facebook’s Messenger Kids has sparked debate about 
what age children should be using messaging apps. Shutterstock.com

Facebook is trialling a new Messenger Kids app in the United States.

The standalone app is aimed at under-13s, who aren’t currently eligible for a normal Facebook account. Parents are responsible for setting up the account and approving any contacts their children add. Kids can then use the app to video chat – both one-on-one or in a group – and send photos, videos and text messages. Currently only available in the US on Apple devices, Facebook expects to extend it to a wider audience in the coming months.

In the week since the app launched, headlines have focused on its potential downsides, amid concerns about data privacytech addiction and kids’ well-being.

But I argue that there is another side to this story: the fact that teaching kids about messaging at a young age is essential to preparing them for the hyper-connected world they will need to navigate in the future.

It’s already happening

At the moment, there is relatively little research in Australia about toddlers’ and children’s use of digital technologies. But studies in the UK and emerging Australian studies suggest that kids are going online at ever earlier ages, and doing a much wider range of activities.

Children younger than 13 are already using social media, and messaging functionality is increasingly built into the “communicative ecology” of families.

On a recent overseas work trip, I shared photos and messages with my nine-year-old daughter via her dad’s Facebook Messenger account. Like most kids her age in Australia, she has daily access to a mobile phone or tablet.

Social media communication is a good way to keep in touch with family. Philippa Collin, Author provided (No reuse)

And like the average Australian household with children younger than 15, we have seven internet-enabled devices in our home. But we don’t have a landline, so web apps, including social messaging apps, are becoming more central to our family communication.

Messaging is also embedded in multi-player games used by older children, such as Minecraft and Clash of Clans.

There are both challenges and benefits associated with kids connecting with others via games and apps, but the functionality is not going to go away. Learning how to navigate social media together is now a key feature of childhood and parenting.

Messaging can be good for kids

The Facebook app is an interesting innovation in the social media space precisely because it promotes learning about and using social media together with kids. The focus is on developing online skills by supporting communication with known relatives and friends, because kids can only connect with parent-approved contacts.

The app has parental controls built into its functionality that allow parents to approve contacts through their main Facebook app. Facebook

As leading kids and tech commentator Anne Collier has written, the most significant thing about the app is that while it has plenty of parental controls built into it, the app itself is not actually a parental control tool. Rather, it is a service that kids and their families and friends will need to learn to use – and use well – together.

Evidence already exists to show that social media can be good for mental health, building friendships, and resilience.

The app will evolve over time as kids and parents use it. What is important is that parents do not become complacent about the app as a “silver bullet” solution to educating children about the internet. Rather, we need to see it as just one tool to foster healthy, respectful relationships with our kids, and learn through the technology.

Bullying and data privacy

For now the Facebook Messenger Kids app features no ads, in-app purchases or sharing of data with other apps on the same device. But as with all websites and apps, this one will be fallible. Learning to think about what we share and how we share it (just like when you meet someone in a park) will still be important on this app.

Bullying can happen anywhere and it is possible – as we’ve seen before – that the app could extend bullying beyond the schoolyard. But all contacts in the app must be pre-approved by parents, and it has reporting features with pop-up feedback, dedicated content moderation, and notifications to parent Facebook accounts. Those features should enable parents to stay better abreast of how kids are using it. Unlike Snapchat and other apps, content can’t be deleted. This will also help kids and parents review communication, and take necessary steps if someone is being mean or harassing.

There are more than 2 billion Facebook users worldwide, and the chances are that our kids will soon add to those statistics. Facebook and other major platforms should be part of a broader effort to help kids and parents learn how to communicate safely and respectfully in a world saturated with social media.

And we should all develop critical digital literacy skills by learning about who is behind the apps and platforms we use, and what happens to our information and data. If using the Facebook Messenger Kids app helps to promote these conversations, that is a very good thing.


This article was written by:
Image of Philippa CollinPhilippa Collin – [Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

 

 

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Travelling these holidays? Follow tips the Socceroos use to conquer jet lag

 Managing sleep and time zones 
can take the fun out of Christmas travel

Long-haul flights over several time zones present two main challenges:

  1. travel fatigue – the effects of sleep loss, restricted movement and dehydration associated with spending many hours on a plane, and
  2. jetlag – the effects of the mismatch between your body clock and the time in your new location.

However, there are ways to minimise disruption to your sleep patterns and body clock when you travel.

The guidelines shown below are similar to those recently used by the Socceroos to help them overcome the jet lag associated with back-to-back games in Honduras and Australia. The result is that they’ll be heading to next year’s World Cup.

Research suggests that there are several things you can do to facilitate adjustment to time zone changes. These include:

  • exposure to, and avoidance of, light at certain times
  • intentional scheduling of sleep and wakefulness
  • use of drugs that can alter sleepiness and/or the timing of the body clock
  • timing and type of food eaten.

As detailed below, we have prepared schedules for exposure to sunlight and low light to follow for 4-5 days after arriving in your new location.

What to do on the flight

The main difficulties with long-haul flights are dehydration, physical discomfort, and sleep loss. To address this, you should:

  • minimise your intake of diuretics, or fluids that increase urine production, such as alcohol, coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks
  • drink water regularly, at least 100ml per hour
  • stretch regularly when seated
  • take a walk every hour when awake.

It can be difficult to get good sleep on a plane. The best strategy is to target sleep during night time in your departure city, and stay awake at other times.

To help sleep aboard the plane, recline your seat, keep your head stable with the headrest, use eye masks and ear plugs if required, and ask flight attendants not to disturb you.

Try not to miss sleep due to playing computer games or watching movies during your sleep target zones.

Medications and food

Melatonin is produced by your brain during the night to signal that it is time to be asleep, and it can be taken as an effective sleeping tablet in controlled circumstances. However if you don’t get the timing right, it can have unanticipated effects on your body clock.

Sleeping tablets can be effective, but can also impair concentration, coordination and alertness the next day, and issues of tolerance and dependence may arise. However, if required, short half-life non-benzodiazepines are preferred to benzodiazepines as they tend to have less negative impact on waking function the next day. Consult your doctor for advice on how to use these, and for a prescription if you think they are suitable for your needs.

Eating white bread may be helpful if you want to sleep on a plane. from www.shutterstock.com

Research shows that diet can also be used to promote sleepiness at night time and alertness during the daytime. These effects of food usually last for 2-4 hours.

To promote sleepiness, eat foods with a high glycemic index (GI), such as white rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, carrots, starchy treats like donuts, and some breakfast cereals.

To promote alertness, eat foods that are high in protein, such as meat, eggs, fish and beans.

Changing your light exposure

Staying inside and going outside at the right times can be hard, as your plans may prevent you from doing this.

If you can’t be outside in the sun, another way to achieve light exposure is to use lighting products that can provide bright light at will.

These products typically use a series of LED (light emitting diode) globes built into the frames of a pair of glasses. This setup delivers bright light directly to the eyes without the need to bother others – it’s what the Socceroos recently used while flying.

Bright light glasses are made by several companies. Another alternative is bright light boxes. These can be useful when the optimum light exposure times occur during the dark in your destination port.

For the reverse situation – that is, aiming to remove light exposure – normal dark sun glasses can be used if you’re outside at a time when ideally you need to be in the dark to adapt. So-called “blue-blocker sunglasses” are another alternative.

Sample adaptation schedule for East-West travel

This example is for travel from Australia to Europe across around eight time zones, but it would work equally well for travel from the United States to Australia. We’ve used a 24-hour clock to indicate times – so for example, 2300 is 11pm, and 0400 is 4am.

We use the term “body clock minimum” to refer to the time of day when it is the easiest to be asleep, and hardest to function effectively if you are awake. For most people who are in bed from 2300–0700h, your body clock minimum occurs at about 0400h.

On the first day in Europe (after a time zone change of 8h West), you have not adapted to the new time zone, so your body clock minimum will be at 2000h local time, which is 0400h in Australia.

You want your body clock minimum to delay – that is, to gradually shift later each day from 2000h to 0400h.

I’m dreaming of a London Christmas. from www.shutterstock.com

Light: Maximise light in the three hours before 2000h and avoid light in the three hours after 2000h. If it is summer in Europe, you could go outside in sunlight from 1700-2000h (no sunglasses). Otherwise you could use bright indoor light, or a portable light box, or bright light glasses; then dim light inside and blue-blocker glasses until bedtime.

Sleep: If you go to bed a little earlier than usual (around 2100-2200h), it should be easy to fall asleep because you will be going to bed just after the time of your body clock minimum. You may not get a full night of sleep because your body clock may wake you up earlier than usual. If you have a nap during the day, make sure you set an alarm to limit it to one hour.

Melatonin: You should not need melatonin to help you fall asleep because you will be sleepy in the evening. However, if you chose to use it on the first one or two nights, it will not cause any harm because it will help your body clock to delay.

Sample adaptation schedule for West-East travel

This example is for travel from Australia to the US across around eight time zones, but it would work equally well for travel from Europe to Australia.

For most people who are in bed from 2300–0700h, your body clock minimum (the time it’s preferable to sleep) occurs at about 0400h.

On the first day in the US (after a time zone change of 8h East), you have not adapted to the new time zone, so your body clock minimum will be at 1200h local time, which is 0400h in Australia.

You want your body clock minimum to advance – that is, gradually shift earlier each day from 1200h to 0400h.

Christmas lights at Chicago zoo. from www.shutterstock.com

Light: Avoid light in the three hours before 1200h and maximise light in the three hours after 1200h. Stay inside with dim light and blue-blocker glasses until 1200h; then go outside in sunlight for at least three hours until 1500h (no sunglasses); then do whatever you wish.

Sleep: You might find it hard to fall asleep until quite late, so you should sleep in in the morning if possible – this would have the added advantage of avoiding light in the morning. If you need a nap, do it before 1200h, or after 1500h, so you don’t miss out on sunlight from 1200–1500h. If you have a nap, make sure you set an alarm to limit it to one hour.

Melatonin: You should not use melatonin to help you fall asleep in the evening – it will make your body clock delay, which is the opposite of what you want.

If you arrive rested and with an adaptation plan ready to go, your holiday should be all you had hoped for.


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Trophy hunting could cause extinction in stressed populations – new research

 The mane attraction.

People are now the most important predators for many animal populations on the planet, but people are rather different from “ordinary” predators. While a lion or an eagle is just trying to get dinner, human predators can be motivated by other aspects of an animal than simply how much meat it can provide.

Trophy hunters obsessively target animals with the largest hornsantlers or manes. Poachers focus on elephants with the largest tusks – and there is a subset of insect collectors who will pay premium prices for stag or rhinoceros beetle specimens with really huge horns or mandibles.

All of these focus their predation on what biologists call “sexually selected” traits. These evolve because they give the (usually male) animal that carries the trait an advantage in competition for mates, either by allowing him to dominate and exclude rival males – think of red deer stags – or because females of his species actively prefer to mate with males with large, loud or bright sexually selected traits, as in the case of birds of paradise.

How these sexually selected traits evolve is a question that has been a difficult issue for biologists for some years: why should females prefer males with a long tail or with especially bright colours – and what is it about stags with large antlers that allows them to win contests and dominate groups of females?

An increasing body of evidence now supports the idea that the expression of these traits is linked in some way to the genetic “quality” of a male. Males who have lost the genetic lottery and who are carrying more than their share of genes that are detrimental to health do not have the resources to grow a big tail or a large set of antlers. Conversely, those lucky males who happen to have a particularly good set of genes can afford the handicap of carrying around a super-sized rack of antlers or set of horns, or will be able to grow extra long and brightly coloured feathery plumes.

Selective harvest

This is useful for our understanding of animal behaviour, but it also has wider implications for the evolution of these species. Researchers have recently found that strongly sexually selected species can evolve faster in response to environmental challenges than species where mating is more random.

Picture of a stag
One of the stag party. Shutterstock

Because males with higher genetic quality gain the majority of matings in these species, their “good genes” can spread through a population much faster than they would if mating were random. This means that strong sexual selection can allow a population to adapt faster to a changing environment, and in some scenarios these species can avoid extinction when the environment changes because of this fast evolutionary response.

In our newly-published research, we asked the question of how this might change when those highest-quality males are removed by “selective harvest”. It’s prohibitively difficult to test these ideas with real hunted populations, so we developed a computer simulation which allowed us to examine what happens when you take these animals out of a population.

Our results are clear – and worrying. If the environment is relatively stable, then even quite severe harvesting of high-quality males is sustainable. But if the population is already stressed by a changing environment, then removing even a small percentage of the best males can lead to extinction. The trouble is, almost all animal populations today are facing increasing stress from changing environments.

This goes against the conventional wisdom. Since there is usually little paternal care of offspring in these animals – and because it seems reasonable to assume that females will not have problems getting fertilised if we remove, say, 15% of the males – it is usually assumed that trophy hunting and similar selective harvests are unlikely to drive animals to extinction when only a small proportion of males are hunted. Our results suggest otherwise.

Picture of an elephant
Big tusks, big target. Shutterstock

Better management would make a difference

Should we, therefore, ban trophy hunting and insect collecting? The argument about trophy hunting in particular goes on – but we do not think that our research adds great weight to either position. So far, it is only based on a computer model – clearly we need some tests of our results based on real data.

What we might consider, however, is changing management practices. We examined how different management altered the outcome of our model, and again we found a clear result. If a minimum age limit is applied to hunted animals, so that only old animals who have already had a chance to mate and spread their genes are removed, then the increased extinction risk that we found goes away.

If a population must be hunted, then restricting hunting to older males only and managing the population sensibly by adjusting quotas when there are signs of stress should ensure that any risk of extinction is minimised.


This article was written by:
Image of Rob KnellRob Knell – [Reader in Evolutionary Ecology, Queen Mary University of London]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

The way your children watch YouTube is not that surprising – but it is a concern. Here are some tips

 Clips of Peppa Pig on YouTube aren’t always 
what you expect them to be. mellowynk/flickr 

Imagine a 3 year old in front of a screen watching Peppa Pig (their favourite TV character) hanging by a noose – the victim of a lynch mob. As the video continues the child sees Peppa explicitly swearing, violently stabbing her brother; and then Peppa’s family acting out a sex scene inspired by 50 Shades of Grey.

Parody and unauthorised online children’s content is an issue writer James Bridle brought attention to recently with his article Something is wrong on the internet.

My audit of these videos shows that in an odd way they actually resonate with a young child’s level of development. This helps us to understand why they get so many views.

However the inappropriate and unsafe messages they communicate to children has worrying implications. Being aware and taking a few key steps can help minimise these experiences in your household.


Read more: Don’t use technology as a bargaining chip with your kids


What children are viewing

Young children have rapidly become prolific users of the internet, including watching online videos. While many of the videos are suitable, others use unscrupulous gimmicky methods to profit from a young and impressionable audience.

This is a very mild version of an edited Peppa Pig video.

My experience is that these videos fall into three categories.

  1. Parody cartoon videos: These depict well-known characters in violent or lewd situations. For example, there are videos of Elsa (from the Disney movie Frozen) angry and using a machine gun, and Paw Patrol characters (a Nickelodeon show popular among pre-schoolers) visiting a brothel.
  2. Disturbing imagery: Other clips depict disturbing imagery, characters or storylines. These include for example, Dad Punches Kid in Face, a video which depicts a father punching his young child in the face for “being naughty”.
  3. Sneaky advertising: Equally worrying, other videos elicit sneaky advertising tactics to persuade children to buy new products. For example, Ryan’s Toy Review is one such video channel with more than four billion views. While the content of this category of videos is generally not violent or sexual, it equates to children sitting in front of never-ending ads day after day.

Why kids watch these videos

The way that children engage with the questionable online videos can be perplexing, and worrying, for parents.

However, when put in the context of what we know about key behavioural characteristics of children as they develop, it’s not that surprising.

The videos often feature something that children are really interested in – toys, playing, and/or popular characters they know. If a child is a fan of the characters, or even owns some of the toys depicted in the video, the connection will be even stronger.

Many of the videos portray odd events. From a child development perspective, things that are unexpected – like an adult wearing a nappy, or their favourite wholesome character being evil – are a great source of humour for young children.

Everybody loves to unwrap stuff!

Many of these videos centre on taking a new present or toy out of a box. As any kid on Christmas morning will tell you, guessing what’s inside the wrapping is half the fun. It will also likely conjure up happy memories for the children of receiving a present themselves.

Some of the videos feature child presenters – children enjoy watching their peers on the screen, and they get pleasure from watching others open presents. The problem is that it can also fuel an incredible desire and anticipation for these particular toys or products.

Shady knock-offs, and no filters

Regardless of their amusing appeal to kids, children are seeing video content not produced by reputable content producers. Instead, they are knock-offs created by anonymous users with names such as Brick Man and Melon Troll. These channels game internet search algorithms to automatically play their video as soon as the last clip the child is watching finishes.


Read more: When exploiting kids for cash goes wrong on YouTube: the lessons of DaddyOFive


Even though a child may be on a video sharing platform for kids, this does not mean that all inappropriate content will be effectively filtered out. For example, a child might search “Peppa Pig” and whatever videos are titled or tagged with “Peppa Pig” appear on their search list. Based on the original search, more suggested videos then appear. Parents state that it is in the suggested videos that the worrying content often appears.

Online videos are a lucrative business, and to capitalise on this process, the algorithms are now informing what is produced. Hashtags and keywords now play a big part in the video content.

Recent research shows that as a result, children are increasingly exposed to videos containing advertising and disturbing images that are indistinguishable from regular programming.

A layer of ethics

An algorithmic approach removes a layer of ethics that is included when humans make decisions in production of content.

YouTube Kids is a very popular site on which kids watch these videos, and owner Google has pledged to improve its algorithms. Google states that amongst other changes, in the last week it terminated more than 50 channels and has removed thousands of videos under their newly revised Community Guidelines.

Another issue that must be addressed is allowing the option to turn off suggested videos automatically playing.

What parents can do

More than 300 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which makes this issue difficult to manage. Amendments from Google will likely take a while.

It is therefore important parents use strategies to protect their family. Five steps parents can do right now are:

  1. Report and block anything inappropriate,
  2. Install an ad blocker (very easy to do and free),
  3. Turn on restricted mode
  4. Draw up a personal video playlist for your child much like a music playlist),
  5. Watch online videos with your child (not necessarily all of every video but enough to be familiar with what they are watching).

The online world is in a constant state of innovation, but it can be a positive part of life if we watch changes that occur, understand the effects on users and address concerns.


This article was written by:

Image of Joanne OrlandoJoanne Orlando – [Researcher: Technology and Learning, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

 

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