The Technoethicist: Is screen time bad for kids? - Philly


The Technoethicist: Is screen time bad for kids?

Introducing a new column, The Technoethicist, where we field tech's tough philosophical questions. First up: Parenting in the age of the smartphone.

Kids and devices.

(Photo by Twin Design via Shutterstock)

This is the first installment of the The Technoethicist, a regular column addressing tech’s ethical quandaries. Submit a question and IMA founder Greg Ippolito will offer thoughtful advice.

Q: Should I be limiting the amount of time my children spend on devices?“Conflicted” in Conshohocken

A: The short answer: Yes.

The reason you’re likely conflicted, “Conflicted,” is because you’re straddling two opposing thoughts:

First is the suspicion that too much exposure to smartphones and tablets is having a detrimental effect on your children. Second is the sense that, throughout history, parents seem to rail against almost any new technology as a matter of reflex. Just because your parents yelled at you to, say, turn off that goddamn Commodore 64, doesn’t mean they were right — and, as a good parent, you don’t want to repeat those mistakes. (When you get to a certain age you know: Noticing elements of your parents in yourself is jarring; noticing the elements you downright hated as a kid is vomit-inducing.)

That said, when it comes to kids and mobile devices, you should trust that nagging sensation in your gut.

The smartphone is not merely the popular tech du jour; it is a new, and dangerous, kind of animal.

Certain device-related fears have gone largely unsubstantiated, like links between exposure to the RF fields emitted by mobile devices and head cancers (glioma and acoustic neuroma). Conversely, other fears, like the dangers of texting and driving, are well-founded and well-documented. Legislation prohibiting “distracted driving” already exists in every state but Montana, and continues to expand. (Way to be you, Montana.) And, of course, there are numerous safety issues — ranging from “stranger danger,” to online privacy, to cyberbullying, to the permanence of posted content — all of which are worthy of our concern, and have been discussed and debated at length.


Arguably, what we should be paying more attention to are the psychological effects smartphone have on their users.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, has been making some noise about the addictive nature of mobile devices, claiming that each is tantamount to “a slot machine in your pocket.” To wit:

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got. When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.

Tech advocates might argue that mobile devices find themselves in the cross-hairs merely due to their popularity. After all, what other technologies were casually criticized as being “addictive” in their heydays — from TV, to the (landline) phone, to the Atari console, to the aforementioned Commodore 64? Harris recently told 60 Minutes that it misses the point:

What this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.

In short, the smartphone is not merely the popular tech du jour; it is a new, and dangerous, kind of animal. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were. Smartphones have been strongly linked with a number of adverse psychological consequences, from impaired sleep to depression and anxiety. And, with the average user checking his/her phone around 150 times per day, we’re getting plenty of risk exposure.

This should concern all of us. What kind of damage might mobile devices be inflicting on our individual lives, on our ability to interact with one another, on the evolution of our greater culture? These are all tough questions that require much thought and consideration. But, in the immediate sense, it seems crazy to let your kids play with the wolf, unsupervised, for long periods of time.

If you do decide to limit your children’s screen time, the Mayo Clinic offers specific guidelines for children up to age 5. Beyond that, their scientists argue that “a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work as well.” But, again, you can probably trust your gut. As a parent, you’ve probably noticed that, after a certain amount of screen time, your kids get a little more — let’s call it “cranky” — than usual. Let that be your starting benchmark for setting parameters.

Also, don’t shy away from trusting your parental gut when it comes to the broader picture. As our children are constantly being drawn back to their devices, what are they missing around them? If we allow this to happen, are we complicit in instilling the unspoken belief that reality just isn’t very interesting? And, if it isn’t very interesting, does that imply that reality isn’t terribly worthwhile? Our actions, and our lack of actions, speak volumes.

Ultimately, each of us constructs his/her own reality — our children included. So, what kinds of realities are they creating for themselves?

Ideally, they’re ones constructed with a healthy balance of outside-in influence (stimuli that affects and persuades us), and inside-out influence (thoughts and ideas that drive us to create new things in the real world). I can remember, as a child, being “bored” in the back of my parents’ car … or laying in the grass and staring up at the sky because I had “nothing to do” … but in those moments of quiet came contemplation and creativity … the brain starts to think from a clearer, more objective place … and you learn, on your own, that there’s a real value in that. If our kids can’t seem to go for long stretches without a device that stimulates them from the outside-in — rather than allowing their own creating energies to generate from the inside-out — that seems both existentially and ethically wrong.

At least, that’s what my gut tells me.

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