We Must Design Tech and Media Platforms with Kids in Mind

Jennifer Siebel Newsom

As a native Californian and first partner to the governor of this Golden State, I see media and technology as engines that drive our economy and embody the creativity and innovation leading the world.

As a mom to four children, every day I see the impact of screens, social media, and access to a world of unfiltered information on the brains and behavior of the young people whose well-being is my first and most sacred responsibility.

I also know that millions of parents share my struggles and concerns, and that no challenge is too great for the ingenuity of California industry and entrepreneurs. So why not expect—in fact, insist!— that the technology shaping our world actually promotes the healthy development of all children who are not only exposed to it, but also increasingly dependent on it?

This year’s COVID-19 crisis has made clear the preeminent role media and technology play in adolescents’ lives. As this report points out, many online experiences are positive for children. And we have much work to do to ensure that all children, regardless of ZIP code or household income, have equal access to the benefits of digital connection.

But even as I have worked to deliver tablets to thousands of device-insecure children in California during the pandemic shutdown, as a mom, I can’t ignore the reality in my home. Distance learning for my four kids this spring opened the floodgates to media and its adverse effects. What started with using Zoom and Gmail for homework assignments became internet searches bringing up age-inappropriate information—and misinformation.

All of a sudden my eldest were sneaking off to their rooms, or hiding devices under their beds at night. I specifically saw the direct cause and effect between violent video games and aggressive behavior in my son. And I know I am not alone. Boys and men continue to be the largest perpetrators of violence in our society, despite all societal efforts to raise generations of children that are healthy and whole.

This report identifies a correlation between adolescent girls’ social media use and their mental health. If that’s because girls turn to social media for self-actualization and peer interaction, we need to address social media use from a public health perspective. If the suicide rate for girls age 10 to 14 has tripled since 1999, with 12.5 percent of African American girls and 10.5 percent of Latina girls in high school having attempted suicide at least once in the past year, what clearer way do our girls have to tell us that they are suffering?

In a world where 1 in 5 American adolescents is receiving treatment for mental disorders, why wouldn’t we design tech and media platforms with those risks in mind? As the pandemic has demonstrated, media and tech are part of our social safety net, virtually a public utility. Shouldn’t we expect that these public utilities of the 21st century seek to be a positive force in child development?

With stakes this high, why wouldn’t we have children’s well-being driving the technology itself? Why is this burden always on the shoulders of parents (even though most also have jobs and other responsibilities besides managing their kids’ technology use) and then the unmeasured changes in their kids’ social and emotional well-being?

As a mom and a Californian, I want to hold to account these two powerhouse industries. I want them to be true partners in understanding how their technologies and content are affecting our children, and how we can ensure healthier media consumption for all. Imagine the upside if social media and information technology were developed expressly to nurture and support our world’s children. That’s something I look forward to.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the first partner of California. 

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.