for Wired Child
Six months ago, Erin bought her seven-year-old son Jacob a tablet computer. What she heard in the media made her hope the device would give her son a leg up on learning. At his mom’s urging, Jacob started playing games advertised to improve math skills, but he quickly discovered entertainment video games. His passionate desire to play these was like nothing his mother had ever seen in the child.
At first Erin found she could use the tablet as an incentive to get Jacob to do things like finish his homework or clean his room, but as she told me in counseling for her son, Jacob’s use of the tablet quickly became obsessive. He asked to game constantly, and he started to bargain about homework, saying he would do it, but only in exchange for more game time than they’d agreed. Erin felt her son was changing in other ways, too. Activities he had enjoyed, like playing outside and reading, became less and less frequent. Most recently, when Erin told Jacob to turn his game off, he threw a tantrum and fumed for more than an hour.
Are you feeling a disconnect between what is promised about children’s technology and what you’ve experienced yourself? Do claims that technology will bring the family closer seem out of sync with kids who retreat to corners or back rooms with their mobile devices for hours at a time? Are assurances of technology’s amazing learning opportunities contradicted by the reality that kids often prefer playing video games, social networking, and texting over doing their schoolwork?
What explains this disconnect? In Wired Child, I’ll talk about how our children’s technology use is defined by profound myths. These myths—many cultivated by those who sell kids their gadgets—encourage the wiring up of a nation of children at the expense of what science is now telling us about their developmental needs.
Marketing tugs on our heartstrings and tells us that all these distracting gadgets—somehow—will bring families closer. A stirring TV commercial for Apple’s iPhone shows a young teen whose phone seems to keep him away from his family’s holiday celebration. At the end of the ad, we learn he’s been videotaping family moments. As the family watches his creation, it brings everyone together. The message to parents is clear: Don’t believe your own eyes, your concerns are all wrong, buy your kids iPhones and they will be closer to you—even if it looks like they’re ignoring you in favor of their phones. Many of those making YouTube comments on the ad said it brought tears,1 but such consummate salesmanship (the ad was nominated for a 2014 Emmy for Outstanding Television Commercial)2 belies research that shows our increasing focus on gadgets is pulling the family apart.
A number of pundits claim traditional schooling has lost its value and that the latest tech gadgets offer kids the learning experiences they need most.3 In reality, research indicates that technologies our kids typically spend so much time with, including video games and social networks, hinder their success in school. Moreover, we’ll see that academic success has never been more important.
A Flood of Technology
Our children’s recreational use of screens and phones is exploding, up considerably from years past,4 so that it is now the dominant activity in their lives. According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation research, today’s children 8 to 18 years old spend an astounding 5½ hours every day indulging in various entertainment screen technologies—including video games, social networks, online videos, and TV—about 7½ hours each day if screens that are used at the same time (e.g., the computer and TV) are counted separately.5 High-school-age kids somehow manage to spend an additional 2½ hours each day texting and talking on the phone. The result is that our kids spend far more time playing with their gadgets than they do attending school.
There’s no doubt that our young people need to learn to use technology productively, but the Foundation finds that kids spend a paltry 16 minutes a day at home using the computer for schoolwork.6 The bottom line is that a remarkable portion of our children’s and teens’ lives is taken up with digital self-amusement. It’s this incredible overuse of screen and phone entertainment technologies that, as we see in this book, threatens their connection to family, academic effort, and many other important activities.
Do You Have the Right to Guide Your Child’s Tech Use?
Many popular media voices suggest that kids know more than their parents or teachers when it comes to technology. This parenting notion stems from the digital native-digital immigrant belief first articulated by video game developer Marc Prensky. He calls children “digital natives” because they have grown up with digital technologies and are therefore comfortable with them, while their relatively tech-inexperienced parents and teachers are “digital immigrants.”7
Prensky holds that parents’ proper role is to buy their kids lots of e-gadgets, sit back, and watch the magic happen.8 Turning the traditional family hierarchy on its head, the digital native-digital immigrant belief marginalizes parents and teachers as technology incompetent, and maintains that kids are better judges of how they should use their devices and time.
I will show that the digital native-digital immigrant belief is a myth. It confuses the ease with which our kids use their gadgets with something that is far more important: understanding how lives spent playing with devices affect kids’ emotional health, academic performance, and chances of success. Parents understand these concerns because they have greater life experience, adult brain development, and better judgment. Nonetheless, the myth has convinced many parents to do what former generations would have considered unthinkable—to step away from guiding kids in the waking activity that takes up more of their time than any other.
Why Digital Myths Prevail
Why do digital myths triumph over science? Much of the reason is America’s abiding trust in technology. Our country’s emergence coincided with the Industrial Revolution. Our progress has been tied to advances in transportation, medicine, and other industries. We welcome new technologies, we adore our gadgets, and we revere those who make them. As Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center notes, “If the US has a national religion, the closest thing to it is faith in technology.”9 Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other industry leaders are today’s gods.
The makers of the tech gadgets that our kids use almost exclusively for entertainment, including video games, phones, and even computers, have hitched a ride on our goodwill for technology. Even if it looks like kids game, text, and gossip endlessly on their devices to the exclusion of family and school, marketing and other popular culture elements tell us we’ve got it all wrong. Our concerns are misguided, and our kids need more and more gadgets most of all.
Media outlets that parents rely on to make effective decisions have financial ties to the producers of kids’ technologies, so it’s not surprising they help build and maintain technology myths. Think about how much TV and Internet technology news looks and sounds like advertising as it highlights the bells and whistles of the latest gadgets. To suggest that kids actually power down their devices and spend time with their families or schoolwork is bad for business, so it’s not said.
Makers of kids’ tech products use other channels to influence parents. Much as the tobacco industry once did, high-tech companies fund pseudo-scientific organizations that appear objective but promote a pro-industry agenda with little acknowledgement of objective current research. When information leaked that Facebook was considering opening its social network to children younger than age 13, many child development experts cautioned against this move. They warned that young minds don’t have good defenses against cyberbullying, and kids’ use of social networks is linked to poor grades. But immediately following news of Facebook’s expansion plans, the directors of ConnectSafely heaped praise on the possible move in high-profile national press.10 Despite its parent-friendly name, ConnectSafely is funded by Facebook and other companies financially interested in getting kids to spend even more time using commercial technologies.11
Digital-age myths also triumph because high-tech devices have a remarkable ability to occupy children without caregiver attention. Industry claims that these devices babysit and educate kids exploit parents who have less time and resources available for their children than prior generations. The extended family—which played an important role in sharing the parenting burden since the beginning of history—is increasingly unavailable. Today’s parents work and commute much longer hours than past generations, often leaving kids to fend for themselves. Assurances that more attention-grabbing gadgets can solve this challenge sound enticing but mislead parents.
Industry denials of the risks of technology addiction also keep parents from questioning the speed and intensity of our children’s shift towards the virtual world. However, brain imaging shows that certain behaviors, such as gambling and video game use, work just like drugs, triggering an avalanche of dopamine, a powerful, reward-based neurotransmitter, into the brain.12 Millions of children, teens, and adults in the US and worldwide now suffer from video game and Internet addiction. Countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan are acting to protect their children from tech addictions, but the US has been slow to recognize the problem and its consequences.
In my work as a child and adolescent psychologist, it’s abundantly clear that the symptoms children and teens experience fit the classic definition of addiction: continued use in spite of serious negative consequences. Over time, addicted kids require more and more technology to achieve the same amount of pleasure. Parents are tearful in my office as they describe how their efforts to limit their child’s technology use are met by kids slamming their fists through walls, physical attacks, or kids becoming withdrawn and suffering from depression and thoughts of suicide.
Finally, as parents, our own love affair with technology makes it hard for us to recognize the costs of wiring up this generation of children. As a Microsoft marketer aptly describes, “As a society, we’re in a moment of major gadget lust and overwhelming choice.”13 We are awed by the way our devices keep us continually in the know, entertained, and in touch with others; we develop powerful bonds to these machines. Despite every intention of engaging with our kids, we find ourselves taking another peek at our computer or phone, sending just one more email or text. “I’ll be right with you sweetie….”
From Myth to Science
The understanding that myths define our children’s technology use emerged from my daily efforts to help families. I have worked with hundreds of parents who were misled by our culture’s “all-tech-is-good-all-the-time” hype, only to find things go very wrong as their children’s gadget use distances them from family, detracts from school success, and sometimes leads to addiction. I became determined to expose these myths, and the result is this book.
In Wired Child, I make the case that we need to stop accepting on faith the gadget-dominated life thrust upon our kids, and I show that research makes a better guide for our decisions. We’ll see that the push to give our kids so many playtime devices is based on widely held but inaccurate notions, and that our kids thrive most when they are connected to the two most crucial elements of their well-being: family and school.
Decades ago, we built families out of necessity. Now we must work consciously to create strong families. And while parents could once assume their children understood the responsibility to make a strong academic effort, in an era when tempting apps are released daily we need to be thoughtful about building our children’s interest in education. Interestingly enough, we’ll see that many leading tech execs provide strict limits on their own kids’ use of digital devices.
This book’s primary emphasis is on children’s and teens’ technology and screen use away from school, which constitutes the great majority of their time with devices. We’ll cover technologies including video games, computer, Internet, talking and texting on phones, TV, online videos, and social networking. I will suggest screen and technology guidelines for kids, but this book is not primarily a technology guide. I won’t recommend how to monitor your child on various social networks or choose the right video game. I will help you provide a balanced life and suggest practical ideas and activities that science has proved support healthy development for children.
I want to make it abundantly clear: Kids’ use of technology is not the problem. The problem is our kids’ extreme overuse of entertainment technologies that is displacing the experiences that are fundamental to a strong mind and a happy, successful life. Together, we’ll look at how to help our kids use technology productively, as a positive force for their future.
I write this book as a psychologist but also a parent. I know the challenges of limiting technologies and screens that can seem to make parenting easier and our kids happy. As we’ll see, though, while technologies may appear to be a godsend at the outset, misused technology denies kids the connection with parents and other caretakers that’s at the very heart of effective parenting and healthy child development. Furthermore, because it deprives them of the bond with parents and hampers their success in school, our kids’ obsessive tech use leads them to be anything but happy.
One of my main goals is to help parents feel less alone if their child or teen experiences problems as the result of technology overuse. Immersed in 24/7 positive tech spin, parents often believe that their kid is the only one who developed compulsive tech habits, failed classes, or spurned family. Parents need to know that many, many families across America and the world are experiencing the same problems. Rather than feeling embarrassed or blaming yourself, it’s time to peek behind the curtain of tech myths to understand why such problems are quite predictable.
It’s especially important to tackle head-on the harmful “digital native-digital immigrant” belief that persuades parents to diminish their role in kids’ lives. This falsehood is at the core of all the digital-age myths outlined in this book. What you almost certainly know in your heart is what science is now revealing: More than ever, our kids need us to be their guide, to help them on their journey to a happy and successful life.
In each of the following chapters, I highlight a specific digital-age myth that is undermining children’s development. After refuting each myth, we’ll then turn to scientific evidence as a better guide for raising healthy children. Finally, in each chapter I’ll provide you with practical strategies to give your children a loving, rewarding childhood amid the challenges of this digital age.
NOTES FOR INTRODUCTION
1. Apple. (2013). Apple iPhone Christmas commercial 2013. (video). YouTube. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v76f6KPSJ2w
2. Diaz, A. (2014, July 10). See the 2014 Emmy nominees for Outstanding Television Commercial. Advertising Age. Retrieved August 2, 2014, from http://adage.com
3. McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games can make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin; Colbert, S. (Executive Producer). (2011, February 3). The Colbert Report [Television broadcast]. Retrieved February 11, 2014, from http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/373360/february-03-2011/jane-mcgonigal; Prensky, M. (2006). “Don’t bother me mom—I’m learning!”: How computer and video games are preparing your kids for 21st century success—and how you can help!. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House
4. Note: Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that children’s entertainment-based screen time has swelled from about 5 hours in 1999 to more than 7 ½ hours each day multitasking between various screens in the latest count: Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/8010.pdf
5. Note: Figures derived from: Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/8010.pdf
6. Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/8010.pdf
7. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.
8. Prensky, M. (2006). “Don’t bother me mom—I’m learning!”: How computer and video games are preparing your kids for 21st century success—and how you can help!. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
9. Frail, T. A. (2010, August 1) What will America look like in 2050? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from www.smithsonianmag.com
10. Collier, A. (2012, June 5). Facebook access for under-13 kids is good – if parents involved. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from www.csmonitor.com; Magid, L. (2012, June 4). Letting children under 13 on Facebook could make them safer. Huffington Post. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from www.huffingtonpost.com
11. ConnectSafely. (2014). Supporters. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from http://www.connectsafely.org/about-us/supporters/
12. Koepp, M. J., Gunn, R. N., Lawrence, A. D., Cunningham, V. J., Dagher, A., Jones, T., et al. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393(6682), 266-268; Weinstein, A. M. (2010). Computer and video game addiction-a comparison between game users and non-game users. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 268-276.
13. Microsoft Corporation. (2011, November 16). Connecting with technology: Microsoft survey finds technology is bringing families together. Retrieved September 24, 2013, from http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/press/2011/nov11/11-16holitechpr.aspx