New Zealanders love their digital technology, with smartphones growing in popularity faster any other kind of device.

A 2015 survey from Research New Zealand found almost three-quarters of all adult New Zealanders owned or had access to a laptop or notebook for private use, and two-thirds owned or had access to three more devices.

With 70 per cent penetration, however, up from 48 per cent in 2013, smartphones were fast becoming the most popular device and 59 per cent of people surveyed said they preferred using their smartphone over other devices.

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker said emerging research showed this trend was continuing.


"Every time we see research about access to tools and platforms the growth is in mobile - more people are using mobile as their primary connection with online services."

There were two reasons for this, he said.

"One is that the power of mobile is amazing compared to only a few years ago - you can do most things you want to on them, and there is broader internet coverage everywhere you go - whatever you are doing you can look at your phone and undertake a task."

But what impact was this increasing usage having on our health and social interaction?

"There's a lot of theories about brain function - some of which is contradictory," said Cocker.

"There's no agreement on how much is the right amount of time to spend online - there's no link between phone use and intrinsic harm like, say being exposed to poison, the issues come with the impact it's having on the rest of our lives and what we are doing on it."

For example, spending eight hours working on a device was different to playing games and being unproductive.

Some work had also been conducted on the effect on the brain, showing that bright back-lit screens could affect sleep patterns, he said.


"When you look at a phone before going to sleep it disrupts your ability to go to sleep and reduces the quality of that sleep."

As for the way it was changing the way we communicate, with potentially less face-to-face interaction, he said this was not necessarily a bad thing, just different.

"Like anyone else I have noticed groups of people on their phones not communicating directly, but in some cases they are communicating with each other in this weird, new way - like being on a site commenting on the same thing.

"It's possible that while it looks anti-social from the outside, it's actually almost hyper-social.

"Maybe as a society we need to adjust our thinking on what being social is, beyond human face to face interaction."

Unfettered access to online content always raised the spectre of potential harm, especially for young people, from being exposed to unwanted, negative digital communication.

"The reality is when you go online and connect on social media you are connecting with people you do not have control over.

"To some extent once you choose to enter those spaces you have to accept you are at risk of being exposed to harm, and for your kids as well."

The main tool used to protect society and young people was to have parental oversight and support, or support from friends and peers, and filtering technologies that go with the devices.

"In the end it's the same old story of parents looking after young people by preparing them for the challenges.

"This has never changed, it's just the tools we use that have changed."