America’s public schools are still touting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.
It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.
Yes, we should have questions about parenting. And, No, it’s not just the children of poorer and middle-class parents that we need to worry about being “raised by screens.” There is data to suggest these populations are at risk, but I think we see the impacts far beyond those groups.
Lower-income teens spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog. (This study counted each screen separately, so a child texting on a phone and watching TV for one hour counted as two hours of screens being used.) Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.
The psychologist Richard Freed, who wrote a book about the dangers of screen-time for kids and how to connect them back to real world experiences, divides his time between speaking before packed rooms in Silicon Valley and his clinical practice with low-income families in the far East Bay, where he is often the first one to tell parents that limiting screen-time might help with attention and behavior issues.
He worries especially about how the psychologists who work for these companies make the tools phenomenally addictive, as many are well-versed in the field of persuasive design (or how to influence human behavior through the screen). Examples: YouTube next video autoplays; the slot machine-like pleasure of refreshing Instagram for likes; Snapchat streaks.
Some parents, pediatricians and teachers around the country are pushing back.
“These companies lied to the schools, and they’re lying to the parents,” said Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Kansas City. “We’re all getting duped.”
“Our kids, my kids included, we are subjecting them to one of the biggest social experiments we have seen in a long time,” she said. “What happens to my daughter if she can’t communicate over dinner — how is she going to find a spouse? How is she going to interview for a job?”
As you read these articles, keep in mind the privilege and perspective coming from the individuals that are sharing this panic, and creating a “consensus.”
In Silicon Valley, some feel anxious about the growing class divide they see around screen-time.
Kirstin Stecher and her husband, who works as an engineer at Facebook, are raising their kids almost completely screen-free.
“Is this coming from a place of information — like, we know a lot about these screens,” she said. “Or is it coming from a place of privilege, that we don’t need them as badly?”
I believe we need to be cautious in our use of these devices and screentime. I think that adults, parents, are terrified of their own addiction and are casting these fears onto their children. We should question these tools, devices, and apps. We should question the developers and platforms regarding the impact and “addiction” caused by these tools.
Dr. Freed and 200 other psychologists petitioned the American Psychological Association in August to formally condemn the work psychologists are doing with persuasive design for tech platforms that are designed for children.