The headlines in The New York Times this weekend read like a clarion call to the nation to take heed of the impact screens are having on our children — only this time, the warning is coming from the creators of the digital devices themselves:
Journalist Nellie Bowles, who writes on tech and internet culture, leads her eye-opening three-part series with words reminiscent of something Dr. Frankenstein might have said about his destructive spawn: “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it,” she writes.
Bowles tells Thrive Global that she was inspired to report these stories after witnessing parents in San Francisco, where she lives, getting increasingly anxious about screens. The tech professionals she interviewed talked about the addictive nature of the very gadgets they helped produce.
“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad.com, told Bowles. Similarly, Athena Chavarria, who was Mark Zuckerberg’s executive assistant at Facebook and now works for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, told Bowles: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
Studies, in fact, demonstrate that their concerns are valid: The neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for managing our brain’s reward and pleasure centers, courses through our bodies in an addictive rush whenever we receive a text, like or email. That’s not surprising when you realize that tech companies hire psychologists to help create “persuasive designs” that manipulate our minds and behaviors, which give gadgets their addictive potency, Richard Freed, Ph.D., the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, told Thrive Global.
As Bowles noted, giants in the field of technology — Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft — have long established rules in their families to limit screen time: Cook doesn’t allow his nephew to use social media and Gates refused his children cellphones until they were teenagers.
But no-screens households are now becoming a thing in Silicon Valley to such an extent, Bowles reported, that nannies are often forced to sign contracts that agree they will not use any screens, including their own phones, around kids when it’s not explicitly authorized by the parents that employ them. Parents’ anxiety over the potential perils of screen time has grown so frenzied that self-appointed spies now photograph caretakers in the act of using their phones around their young charges, and post the photos on parenting forums. One nanny told one of Bowles’s sources that a mother surreptitiously followed her throughout the day to make sure she wasn’t using her phone — the nanny quit on the spot once the mother revealed herself and asked a barrage of questions. “Of course, it’s very offensive on a human rights level,” Syma Latif, who operates Area Sitters in the Bay Area, told Bowles: “You’re being tracked and monitored and put on social media.”
Bowles’s reporting also revealed an increasing double standard within the educational system. The original concern was that students in middle to lower-income school districts would not gain tech skills and savvy at a pace commensurate with kids in more affluent districts or private schools. Now, the worry is the exact opposite: “It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens,” wrote Bowles, “while children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.” She noted that play-based preschools are on the rise in richer neighborhoods, while states like Utah are unveiling state-funded online-only preschools. Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana will follow suit next year.
To help parents and educators rethink tech-centric moves like Utah’s, Freed co-petitioned — along with 200 psychologists, including Jean Twenge, Ph.D. and Sherry Turkle, Ph.D. — the American Psychological Association (APA) to come out against clinicians who help tech companies engineer persuasive design for youth-driven apps and devices. When Thrive Global reached out to the APA, a source who asked to remain anonymous said that the petition is currently being reviewed by the Board of the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, which could, in one of many possible scenarios, “decide to put together a group to look into whether or not there’s any scientific literature that addresses the issues the letter raises to formulate a position.”
Until then, Freed, who gives talks around the country on how parents can help their kids develop healthy relationships with technology, offers these five core steps parents can implement right now to manage their children’s screen use:
No gadget use on weekdays
Use computers only for homework on school nights
Emphasize print books at home
Postpone giving kids smartphones and data plans until 14-16
No screens in the bedroom
Freed also encourages parents to get involved with Wait Until 8th, an organization that allows parents to collectively pledge that they will not allow their child a smartphone until eighth grade. “Asking parents to get on board,” he says, will help galvanize change because a smattering of students here and there without phones won’t change the culture.
For her part, Bowles says that one of her more surprising findings is that it wasn’t social media, apps or video games that Silicon Valley parents were sweating over. “It’s an issue around the screen, literally,” she says, noting that she too struggles. “I’ve tried to fight my own screen addiction,” she admits, telling of how she tried to distance herself from her phone at night. “I moved the charger to the other side of the room. Do you know what happened? I now wake up with a phone that’s not charged in my bed.” She says she’s loathe to supply prescriptives to others: “I don’t know what the solution is. I clearly don’t live a detoxed life.”
In Bowles’s view, families and individuals should define the right screen time parameters for themselves, and schools should really think about how to use technology in ways that don’t undermine the limits parents are trying to set at home.
After reporting out the first three stories of what will be an ongoing Times series, she remains cautious about making any sweeping deductions: “You shouldn’t just assume that these things are harmless and you also shouldn’t just assume that they’re harmful.” What we should continue doing, she offers, “is having a conversation about what impact these tools are having on developing minds.”
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