Our Kids Are Walking Around with Slot Machines in Their Pockets
You’ll see a lot of things in Silicon Valley that you won’t see in the rest of the country. But there’s one thing you won’t see there that’s become commonplace everywhere else—children on smartphones. The creators of the technologies and social media apps that are dominating an ever-enlarging portion of our children’s lives are often the ones who are most wary of giving their children access to them.
That’s all you really need to know.
As Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says, we’re all walking around with slot machines in our pockets. We don’t let our children into casinos; we should be just as wary of letting these casinos into our children’s hands.
As a father of two young boys, I constantly worry about the negative impact of these technologies on our children. When I think back to my childhood, I remember riding my bike to a friend’s house and then exploring the woods. My kids spend their time staring at a screen. And they’re not alone—more than half of all children age 8 to 12 have their own tablet, and a quarter of them have their own smartphone.
Instead of meeting with their friends in person (and developing social skills), teenagers obsessively refresh their posts to see how many likes they received. And current research shows worrying effects: Overuse has been found to contribute to obesity, sleep deprivation, posture issues, stunted social skills, and blurred lines between real and virtual relationships. There has been an unprecedented surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide as well as a marked decrease in sociability, particularly in teenage girls. All this at a time when the pandemic has forced our children online even more for school and to see their friends and family.
Video games and screen time are what’s known in economic terms as an inferior good— the poorer you are, the more of it you consume.
Right now, the interests of parents are directly at odds with the interests of the technology companies. They’re monetizing our attention and profiting off of our time. As they say, the addictive nature of smartphones is a feature, not a bug. We parents are outgunned and at a total loss.
Unfortunately, our government is completely unequipped to be a part of the solution. The Office of Technology Assessment, which was responsible for ensuring Congress was informed on these issues, was dissolved in 1995. Recent hearings with tech CEOs, including Mark Zuckerberg, showed that our leaders don’t understand even the basics of how social media works. Many of our leaders refuse to use Zoom and have never read their own emails. The private sector salaries for experts in this area dwarf what the government offers, ensuring that the information and expertise will lie far from Washington.
This is a fundamental problem of our time and one that we won’t have full insight into until well after the worst effects are felt. We need an informed government with relevant expertise to combat the excesses of tech companies and, when needed, keep them in check so these new technologies are developed in a way that maximizes children’s health and education, not company profits. I’m optimistic that we can quickly build consensus on these issues as many parents in Silicon Valley are realizing their importance.
We need to “upgrade” the operating system of our government. Let’s bring back the Office of Technology Assessment to ensure that Congress gets information on these issues from experts who are not being paid by the tech companies. And let’s bring real thought and resources to how the “attention economy” can be properly regulated with human interests in mind, including an agency dedicated to this continually evolving set of issues.
Let’s pour money into the CDC and NIH to fund research on the health effects of these devices and apps on our children. We need to develop guidelines (and regulations, if needed) on design features. For example, we can remove autoplay features for young children and endless scrolling on social media apps and cap the number of notifications or recommendations per day.
We managed to incentivize the production of high-quality educational content on TV, and we should do the same on YouTube and other platforms. Why are children forced to watch ads before their latest Fortnite video instead of a brief history lesson?
We should change our curricula in public schools to include mindfulness, responsible use of technology, and critical thinking so our children can assess the information they come across online. We should have screen-free periods of time. These are just some of the ideas that we need to explore.
Many with professional experience in the industry describe the work they’ve done in stark terms. They say that the smartest minds of a generation are spending their time getting teenagers to click on ads and obsess over social media posts. They’re also preventing their own children from facing the negative effects.
In short, many experts are worrying that the widespread adoption of a poorly understood technology has caused mental health and developmental problems for an entire generation. The data shows that these concerns are playing out before our eyes. We shouldn’t just accept that our kids aren’t all right—let’s do something about it.
Andrew Yang is the founder of Humanity Forward.
This essay was written as part of the Common Sense research report Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World. Learn more about the report.