“Melinda Gate’s children don’t have smartphones and only use a computer in the kitchen. Her husband Bill spends hours in his office reading books while everyone else is refreshing their homepage. The most sought-after private school in Silicon Valley, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, bans electronic devices for the under-11s and teaches the children of eBay, Apple, Uber and Google staff to make go-karts, knit and cook. Mark Zucherberg wants his daughters to read Dr. Seuss and play outside rather than use Messenger Kids. Steve Jobs strictly limited his children’s use of technology at home. It’s astonishing if you think about it: the more money you make out of the tech industry, the more you appear to shield your family from its effects.” Alice Thomson - The Times
As someone who grew up in the age of land-line phones, TVs without remotes, snail-mail, no desk tops in the house and a “come home when the street lights come on” mantra from my parents, I have – as much as any millennial out there – embraced technology and allowed it to become a ubiquitous and unremarkable part of my daily life. We carry around with us, every day, technology that even ten years ago we couldn’t fathom and yet we do so with the nonchalance of putting our pants on. But, as a father of two young children, I’ve been wondering more and more about the effect technology has on our kids, and particularly the effects it can have on young, developing brains. And as many schools and school districts are committing more resources to implementing technology into their curricula, and doing so at younger and younger ages, I’ve also wondered if we as a society have paused to consider, not just what these amazing technological advances are doing to us more broadly, but what they’re doing to our children.
There are plenty of existing studies that make the case for and against the role technology should play in our children’s lives. How much, how early, how often, what form, etc. Yet, despite THE definitive report on this matter not really existing, many school districts – like mine – have gone all-in on technology. And many of them – like mine – begin their student’s emersion in tech as early as first grade. I won’t go down the “Big Brother” conspiracy hole of every student’s keystroke, K through 12thgrade, being a data trail collected on district owned machines. But I will touch on the well documented science behind brain development, and that is to say that a child’s brain is continuously evolving until roughly the age of 25. Neurological pathways are constantly being strengthened, weakened, rerouted and formed based on environmental influencers. And when we consider how our own habits as adults have been altered – even within the last ten years – due to the rapid advance of technology, it’s worth asking if schools and society are going too far, too fast when it comes to technology and our kids.
We’ve all seen it – the group of kids, walking heads down, staring at their screens. Together as a group, but not really interacting with each other. And we wonder to ourselves how they DON’T run into light polls more often. Author Nicholas Carr posits that the ever-increasing role tech plays in our lives has created a “culture of constant distraction and interruption that undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people.” So, while the internet helps the part of our brain that scans for information quickly, the various interruptions and distractions affect the ability to focus, think deeply and experience deep emotions. This effects empathy, memory and attentiveness, to name a few. And, as Psychology Today has said, attention is THE gateway to all thinking because without it, “perception, memory, language, learning, creativity, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making are greatly diminished or can’t occur at all.” It goes on to point out that our children’s ability to learn to focus effectively and consistently lays the foundation for almost all aspects of growth and is fundamental to their development into successful and happy people.
The phenomenon of distraction caused by tech even has a name – continuous partial attention. Meaning that all of the time a person is only partly paying attention. As a near 50-year-old, I’ve felt shades of that in myself recently, particularly over the last 5 years. Carr has a great metaphor for this. He calls it the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading, for instance, is like scuba diving in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions. As a result, the reader is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available to them. In contrast, using the Internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad vista, surrounded by many distractions and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing. The scuba vs. jet-ski analogy also effects memory, as reading a book requires the mind to catalogue and house what it reads. The internet only requires that you have good search skills and does not reward memory. Why commit something to memory when you can just “Google” it? And if we say to ourselves (as we always do) that each generation has some new technology that older generations think will be the end of humanity as we know it, Carr points out that we’ve never had a media technology that so shapes the way our minds work. Even our TV’s have been traditionally restricted to certain parts of the house and certain parts of the day. We never took TV’s with us in our back pockets everywhere we went (including the bathroom).
While the question of how technology affects our children’s brain development is an important one, there’s also the question of their overall well-being. With 76 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds on Instagram, 75 percent on Snapchat, 66 percent on Facebook, 47 percent on Twitter (NORC Center for Public Affairs), the question of well-being is important because these are all social sites. The University of Michigan conducted a study that illustrates that the more time participants spent on Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined. Other studies show that control groups who gave up Facebook for 5 consecutive days exhibited a rise in life satisfaction. Another example in a 2014 study of 881 college female Facebook users shows they had net-negative feelings due to comparisons to the bodies of friends. The study concludes that the attention to physical attributes may be more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because with social, these were people they knew. Rather than enhancing well-being, these findings suggest that Facebook (and social media as a whole) may undermine it. And questions like “am I fat?” are just the tip of the well-being ice burg. Phantom vibration syndrome, cyberbullying, increased suicide and depression rates amongst teens, access to harmful content, reduced attention spans and so many more issues are troubling for our youth. And let’s not forget FOMO (fear of missing out), defined by the New York Times as “the blend of anxiety, inadequacy and irritation that can flare up while skimming social media”. There’s even evidence that looking at pictures of friend’s meals on Instagram and Pinterest makes our own meals bland by comparison. Many of the unintended consequences of technology and the internet are not age restrictive – they have the potential to affect us all. But, for young minds whose brains are more malleable than we adults, that’s a lot of negative input flowing in.
To be fair, my daughter’s school doesn’t allow 2ndgraders to search the internet. The student’s iPads are closely monitored and the aps on the devices are strictly learning games. But the pecking vs. typing or writing, the fast-flying images and colors, the wetting of the appetite for more and more of the device is what has my wife and I concerned to the point that our daughter isn’t allowed to bring the iPad assigned to her home, as most of her classmates do. We’re the weird Luddite family, apparently. But then I found out we’re no more weird than the people who designed these technologies in the first place. Many original designers, engineers and programmers from the early days of Google, Facebook, et al have emerged recently to express concern – even remorse – for what they “unwittingly” unleashed on the world. Many of them are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where many of their tech creations are banned. As one article put it, they appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: “never get high on your own supply”. In fact, many of these designers openly admit that their designs were intentionally addictive. Hitting the “like” button was purposefully created to release dopamine, the same chemical in the brain that’s the payoff for gamblers, drug addicts and alcoholics. The swiping or scrolling motion design on our hand-held devices was inspired by the pulling of a slot machine handle, and Venture capitalist Roger McNamee compares Facebook and Google to tobacco companies and drug dealers, because they too are just “giving users what they want”.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has been consulting the tech industry for years and occasionally hosts expensive seminars on how to manipulate people into habitual use of tech products. He writes that “the technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” These actions are all “just as their designers intended”. He discusses the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, like varying the rewards to create “cravings”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. He states that pain or irritation will prompt an almost instantaneous and mindless action to quell the negative sensation. And these techniques aren’t always generic. A recently leaked internal Facebook memo revealed that their algorithms can identify when individual teens feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”. Yet Eyal is unapologetic about these techniques, saying that “just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them.” And yet, for his family, in his home, he’s installed an outlet timer connected to a router that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day.
It’s obvious technology is here to stay, and I shudder to think about what sorts of unfathomable advances we’ll see in ten years. The iPhone I have right now will likely, upon a decade’s reflection, be as antiquated in our view as the cotton gin. But as parents and educators, we can’t shield our kids forever from technology and some of the wonderful benefits it brings. As much as some of us (like me) wish we could steel away to some unplugged mountain top, its simply unrealistic in today’s world. In order to work and in some cases learn, we need technology. Having said that, I will take a cue from Steve Jobs, who wouldn’t let his kids have iPhones or iPads until the age of sixteen. And I will remain cautious about the next greatest thing and look to limit and monitor what my kids use. Most of the people designing and advancing technology at places like Google and Facebook are good people. They’re not out to get us. But they are out to hook us. And our children. So, we need to be aware of the pitfalls of technology as we rely on it more and more. Because, as former Google product manager Tristan Harris would say, “a handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.”