Today’s generation will be more photographed and more video-taped than any other in human history. A baby takes her first steps, and then watches the instant replay on her father’s phone. A couple walks down the aisle to get married, and it’s live-tweeted.

How is a digitally-immersive world changing us?

A major new study getting underway in Canada aims to find out. It’s led by Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He also works at the Boston Children’s Hospital and runs the Center on Media and Child Health.

The Growing Up Digital (GUD) Alberta project sees him partnering with the University of Alberta and the Alberta Teachers’ Association to follow thousands of Alberta kids into adulthood to learn about their media exposure and trace their educational, medical and developmental outcomes to finally start answering the big questions.

'Research to date is mostly generated from television ... and I can't tell you how or if this is going to shift with the advent of interactive screens.' - Dr. Michael Rich

He compares it to the Framingham Heart Study, which did a similar thing for heart health.

"The only way we’re going really get a handle on questions like the violence one is by following people in a very intensive way over years, so we can see whether those kids who were playing Grand Theft Auto at age eight are actually more likely to be stealing cars at age 28," he says.

A small pilot should begin next spring and if funding comes together, GUD Alberta will roll out on a larger scale with the start of the 2015 school year.  It will look at three cohorts:

  • High school students
  • Tweens
  • Pre-schoolers

The study will follow them for years (so long as the funding holds out).

Rich, who worked as a Hollywood script doctor before he became a proper doctor, calls the digital world "the air we breathe" and admits we’re going into unmapped terrain. "The biggest issue is that we as a society have not really questioned this, or examined it in any serious way," he says. "We draw an artificial distinction between education and entertainment."

But kids’ brains don’t make that distinction. They’re spending as much time in school as they are on digital media, from phone calls to texting to games and shows. How is it changing them?

"Children are collecting information about the world and how to behave in it all the time. We need to pay attention to their whole experiential diet," he argues.

We used to think sitting too close to the TV would hurt your eyesight, but now it seems more likely that kids with poor eyesight sit nearer to the TV. The same ambiguity exists in the connection between young people watching violent programs or playing violent video games, and going onto become violent adults. Does violent media drive people into violence, or are violent people drawn to violent media from a young age?

The myth of the 'toxic' screen

He admits hard rules like "no screen time for under-twos" makes little sense today, when "screens" include video chats with grandparents and reading interactive books.

"It’s been distilled down to a draconian prohibition, and that was never the intent. The reality is the research to date is mostly generated from television-only research, and I can’t tell you how or if this is going to shift with the advent of interactive screens," he says. "It does not show that screens are toxic."

Instead, television time is merely "less rich" than face time. The exceptions he includes are habituating kids to screen time for things like meals, which can be harmful indirectly as it leads to less mindful eating, and static habits. "There is evidence that people who eat in front of screens are at higher risk for obesity," he says.

"We need to change that dynamic into a conscious awareness that these are tools that do some things very well, and don’t do everything very well," he adds. "Used mindfully, media create phenomenal opportunities."

Kids now grow up watching live footage from Mars, or cameras on sperm whales as they dive deep and fight giant squid. Growing up with the sum of human knowledge in your pocket will surely give today’s geniuses some truly giant shoulders to stand upon.

And the great Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan’s vision may be realized.

"It has potential for use becoming the global village, finally," Rich says. "If [Western] kids are Facebooking with kids in Iran, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to convince them to take up arms and shoot them down as the ‘Other.’ These media can connect us with others in a way that humanizes the human race."