Parents who are struggling with how much digital screen time to allow their kids would be wise to consider that the titans of those same technologies limit their own children’s access to the devices.
That’s right, the makers of smartphones and tablets, of social media channels and game boxes, restrict and, in some cases, altogether forbid their kids from using these same technologies.
It’s a bit like smoking – you can be sure that tobacco execs didn’t (and don’t) let their kids anywhere near the very same product they actively promote to the world. Now, we’re not saying the use of digital tech is the same as a 3-pack-a-day smoking habit. But there’s ample evidence to suggest the risks of addiction are just as great.
And that’s what parents should take away from tech leaders’ reluctance to let their own kids spend much time with digital technology: they’re aware of those risks and their ramifications for young minds and lives.
In an interview not long before his death, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs confessed to a New York Times reporter that when it came to digital technology including his own company’s shiny new iPad, he and his wife “limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
In their book on education and digital screens, authors Joe Clement and Matt Miles pointed to the irony “that in a modern public school where kids are being required to use electronic devices like iPads, Steve Jobs’s kids would be some of the only kids opted out.”
And Jobs wasn’t alone. Bill and Melinda Gates placed significant restrictions on their children’s access to digital technologies, and across Silicon Valley, similar stories can be heard about the children of other tech titans.
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired magazine and CEO of 3D Robotics, told that same Times reporter that his kids “accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules. That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
Even at ultra-brilliant learning institutions likes MIT, the instructors and higher ups ensure that their children’s access to digital tech is limited. “Here I am at MIT, surrounded by super techies,” writes MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle. Their kids are being taught at Montessori schools and they have “rules about no computers at the dinner table, no computers at breakfast, no computers here, no computers there, no computers in the classroom.”
The tech titans, adds Turkle, know what the rest of us don’t: that digital technology presents very real risks to young minds. And what are some of those risks?
Addiction – There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that digital technologies and social media are highly addictive – a kind of ‘digital heroin‘ that stimulates many of the brain’s same pleasure centers as actual drugs. “Kids have basically been carrying around a portable dopamine pump for the past 10 years,” says David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.
Anxiety & Depression – Today’s digitally-connected children are “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades,” writes Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego University and author of Generation Me and iGen.
Stupidity – Harsh, yes, but then there’s growing evidence to suggest that merely having a smartphone lying nearby can make us dumber (meaning, we suppose, that the only ‘smart’ thing in that equation is the phone itself?).
Shorter Attention Spans – Digital devices are contributing to increasingly short attention spans, say educators and other child development experts. How bad is it? Well, Microsoft Corp. and others estimate goldfish have longer attention spans than us humans.
Increased Isolation – An irony often pointed out about smartphones and other digital devices is that despite kids enjoying instantaneous forms of connection between others, a growing number of kids report feeling isolated and alone. Consider that between 2000 and 2015, the frequency with which teens got together with their friends dropped 40%.
Technology isn’t all bad, of course, and many educators and child development experts point out that smartphones, the Internet, even social media, can deliver benefits to kids. But the key for parents is to recognize that limits must be set, and they need look no farther than the titans of tech to serve as role models in establishing those limits.