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What would you say about a widely available consumer product that is highly addictive, facilitates and perhaps causes deeply anti-social behavior, leads to loneliness and aggression, delays and impairs cognitive development and according to some research may kill you in the long run? Sounds like a public health crisis. And maybe it is.
It’s not tobacco, it’s not alcohol—it’s far more widely available than either of those whose purchase and consumption is limited by law to adults. The product in question is the smartphone. And Tucker Carlson asked some questions on his show that are bound to make a lot of people uncomfortable. In large part, it’s because they know he’s right on his diagnosis, but his solution—banning smartphones for kids—will strike them as drastic.
But what if it’s not? What if smartphone use—and in particular the social media use it enables —is harming children? We don’t let kids buy cigarettes or whiskey and for good reason. Carlson noted a disturbing correlation in the data. “It’s not surprising,” he said, “ that rates of mental illness and suicide among teenagers began to surge around 2012, just as smartphones and social media became universal.”
I’d make a small amendment to Carlson’s overall description: Smartphones are the syringe, if you will, but social media is the drug.
What is particularly striking is that the open secret in Silicon Valley is that parents there severely restrict their kids’ screen time. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, famously forbids his nephew to use social media. If you want to see kids playing with wooden blocks, reading books, or playing outside go to Palo Alto or Menlo Park. If you want to see kids spending their afternoons and evenings playing “Candy Crush” go to Wichita.
How did we get to a point where the people who develop and sell technology won’t let their kids use it but have convinced everyone else that their kids need to use if they want to succeed?
It’s complicated, but it’s worth noting that the same economic pressures that have made married, two-parent families a luxury good, increasingly enjoyed more frequently by the affluent than by the middle class, have created a situation in which parents, both of whom usually have to work, use screen time as a combination babysitter, pacifier, and playmate. Who can blame them? The demands placed on families trying to stay in the middle class are intense. Between the requirement of being out of the house at a job and the normal fatigue at the end of a day’s work, parents are under pressure, too.
What’s a parent to do when smartphones and tablets have been marketed for kids as learning centers? They think giving their kids a phone is helping and its reinforced when every school thinks it has to use tablets in the classroom if they’re going “to prepare their students to compete in a global economy.” Or something.
But it was a false promise. As Carlson put it in his monologue, with a smartphone, “you can answer every question on ‘Jeopardy’ without learning a thing.” So kids—all of us really—are more connected and have more computing power and information at our fingertips than ever before, but do we know any more? Are we wiser? Are we happier? Are our children happier?
The answers to those questions might explain why Silicon Valley, which prides itself on changing the world, is no longer held in such high regard. To paraphrase Peter Thiel, we were told to expect flying cars and we got Twitter instead. What changed?
Google’s unofficial corporate motto used to be “Don’t be evil.” It sounds good until you think about it; at which point you realize that it actually says a lot about the limits today’s technologists put on themselves. They’re aiming too low. Google’s motto isn’t “Do good” or “Be good.” It’s not a call to action, it’s a call to inaction. It says what not to do, and that’s probably because they themselves don’t know what to do.
That’s a problem for an industry premised upon building a better world. They’re saying just don’t make this one any worse. That’s fine, but it’s hardly inspiring, and it’s not sustainable. The middle- and working class in this country are tense because they sense the country can’t meet its embedded growth obligations. Put another way, parents don’t think their kids have better prospects than they had and kids don’t think they can do better than their parents. Heck, a lot of them are wondering how they can just stay even. When we express it that way, it’s just an economic problem. It’s more than that and it has major social and political implications.
One key question we should ask is, why are two incomes almost a necessity for families to remain in the middle class? It’s not because science and technology are progressing too fast. That’s a fallacy. It’s because they’re advancing too slow. It’s true that people are being displaced from lucrative jobs by new technologies—that’s always happened—but the problem is that technology isn’t advancing fast enough to give them something new to do at the same wages. If you are replaced by automation or globalization you are very likely to become underemployed, that is employed, but at much lower wages. Our technologists have been telling us for years that they’re building the future. But not fast enough. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has lowered its aspirations from building the world of tomorrow to using internet-enabled bits to trigger dopamine releases in adolescent brains. That’s what addictive drugs do. It’s what social media does too. Both of them are selling the same thing.
Carlson quotes from a 2017 interview with Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, who described what Facebook was designed to do. The interview is very revealing because Parker is quite candid and expresses serious reservations about the unintended consequences of social media use. He said they approached the design of Facebook by asking a simple question:
“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. (Emphasis added.)
What about kids? God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains. But we’re learning—and it’s not good. Carlson thinks Congress should ban smartphones for kids and maybe they should. For parents concerned about being able to reach their children when they are away from home, a simple phone that makes calls and texts would suffice. And schools should stop deluding themselves into thinking that giving kids iPads makes them smarter. In fact, encouraging screen addiction might be making them less prepared to lead happy, productive lives.
There are a number of intertwined issues at stake in how we handle new information on the harmful effects of smartphones and social media on children. Conservatives will be rightly wary of government intrusion into the parent-child relationship. But we must face the fact that we have created an economy in which both parents often must work and be away from their children every day. Smartphones and social media fill some of that void. Banning phones and/or social media may not be the right solution, but we must face the issue head-on. No one wants Instagram or SnapChat raising their kids, but that’s what’s happening.
What is perhaps most striking is the apparent class divide. Upper-income households, which are more likely to be single-income households where one parents stays home with the kids have already seen the detrimental impact of consumer technology on their children and are taking action. Meanwhile, middle-class, usually two-income households are behind the curve. Again. That is unsustainable and we need to find solutions. Tucker Carlson offers a place to start.
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