Numerous voices have emerged in the last two years to warn us about the effects of digital screen addiction on children. These voices include Adam Alter in his book “Irresistible”, Nicholas Kardaras in his book “Glow Kids”, Jean Twenge in her Atlantic Monthly “iGen” article, Delaney Ruston in her film “Screenagers”, and Anderson Cooper in his 60 Minutes “Brain Hacking” segment.
They have told us that our screens are as addictive as any drug, that they fragment children’s attention, consume an inordinate amount of their time, isolate them from others, reduce the time they spend exercising, cut into their sleep, reduce the quality of their study and learning, diminish their cognitive functioning, and make them anxious and depressed.
They have told us that tech companies have a deep understanding of the mechanisms of screen addiction, and that they use this understanding to make apps super-addictive. Facebook co-founder Sean Parker affirmed this point in November during an interview with Axios in which he said that Facebook was all about “…how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible (by) exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. We understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Next page: Five things to consider when it comes to screen addiction
These voices also have revealed that some tech executives are concerned about the negative consequences of screen addiction, and that they limit their own children’s use of screens. For example, Steve Jobs didn’t allow his own children to use iPads, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya doesn’t allow his kids to use Facebook, and numerous tech executives send their children to schools like Waldorf because screens aren’t permitted.
These voices have provided us with some comfort by publicly validating our private concerns. We are relieved to know that our children aren’t the only ones who have changed in disturbing ways after getting a smartphone, and that we aren’t crazy because we believe that this is wrong, if not dangerous.
These voices also implicitly affirm our feeling that something must be done to address screen addiction among children. But what specifically? In order to decide what must be done we need to have a national conversation about which societal institutions should be responsible for addressing screen addiction, and what role each should play. This national conversation must answer the following questions:
- If some tech employees believe digital screens are so harmful that they don’t allow their children to use them, should we similarly prevent our own children from using them? If they send their children to schools that disallow the use of digital screens, should we similarly demand that our own children’s schools disallow the use of digital screens?
- If tech companies understand the mechanisms of screen addiction, and use this understanding to make apps optimally addictive, couldn’t they similarly use this understanding to make apps minimally addictive? If this would diminish profits, can they apply their creative minds to developing a solution that limits addictiveness while simultaneously growing profits?
- Should screen addiction be labelled a public health problem? Should it be the focus of government research and policy? Should we look to France’s example of banning children aged 15 and under from using smartphones while at school, and in turn develop our own national education policies? What about Malaysia’s example of developing training modules to teach school counselors how to intervene with addicted students?
- What role can the advertising, marketing, film, and television sectors play? Could they define a new social zeitgeist –- a new lifestyle model — that makes it cool, hip and desirable for kids to reduce screen time? Could they commit to continuously educating the public about screen addiction, and keeping it in the forefront of public consciousness?
- What role can corporations play? Can they raise awareness of screen addiction among employees? Can they add childhood screen addiction to the shortlist of corporate social responsibility causes that they sponsor?
Our future will be screen-saturated. While screens provide our children with nearly amazing benefits in terms of learning and communicating with others, we now know that they also seriously harm them. How do we set norms and limits that achieve a healthy, manageable balance between the benefits they provide, and the harm they cause? The questions above offer an initial stab at framing our national dialogue about how to do this.