When UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote a letter to big tech firms a week ago accusing them of “collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely” the response on Twitter was not fully supportive. One user stated “I worry that a generation is being exposed to the emotional side effects of Jeremy Hunt” but then Twitter, is probably not the right place to look for people concerned by the effect of the overuse of technology on children, the people I call Tech-Free Parents.
These are people who challenge the accepted wisdom that technology must be embraced. Not all of them are living off the land, re-enacting The Good Life. One thing they have in common is an appreciation of the positive uses and the dangers of modern technology. They understand how children are at risk growing up in a society that doesn’t fully control the information systems it uses daily. They get how easy it has become to let your guard down and make yourself vulnerable, and to allow technology to affect your health, drive and personality.
1. Safety and Security
If you lost money replying to an email promising 50% of a 20 million dollar stolen cash package shipped from the Central Bank of Nigeria, you will, I hope find somebody to give you sympathy. More seriously though, scammers have been targeting children to act as money mules, to part from money or to install malware.
In 2017, an eight year old was in Australian newspapers after receiving instant messages from an impersonator using the username “the real Justin Bieber” through a music app on her iPad. The messages read “Who wants to win a 5minute video call with me?”… “All you need to do is send me a photo of you nak**”… then it got worse. The same ploy has been used by many and has led to arrests in the UK and America. The worst part is that once you’ve been scammed into doing something embarrassing on the Internet, the perpetrator has a hold on you, so you can easily be blackmailed into increasingly bad things.
If you’ve managed to be a proud parent but resist the urge to share any of your kid’s details online, well done! It takes some doing in this day and age. But are your child’s photos out there nonetheless, posted by well-meaning “friends” and helpfully tagged using Facebook’s facial recognition? Did a relative accidentally let their social networking iPhone app read and upload their Contacts? Now your family’s details have ended up on those servers without you doing a thing.
Taking it one step further, if we’re all just six degrees of separation from each other, and we’re all confiding in Facebook with regards to our friends and all our likes and dislikes and thousands of location-tagged photographic memories, how much damage could somebody cause with access to Facebook’s database?
Forget the “legal” ways available to advertisers and the likes of Cambridge Analytica to hook into the social network’s data. How often has the database been lost, or forgotten in the back of taxi? Are their staff content enough to never be tempted by a terrorist group or an enemy state to hand over a USB stick? It would have been impossible for Hitler to exterminate his targets with such ruthless efficiency without extensive, well-ordered lists of people’s names and characteristics. How long before a new similarly radical word leader forces Facebook to hand over access?
It’s great that we no longer get a tanned face from the radiation of massive old CRT TVs and monitors; flat screens are a great improvement. But still, I wonder how healthy it is for children to sit in a classroom with the black-out blinds down, their faces bathed in the purple glow of a massive mesmerising interactive whiteboard that stays on all day, while the teacher wonders why the schoolchildren don’t make eye contact.
Ever spent too long playing a video game and needed a moment to “come down” to real life? Paediatrician and researcher Dimitri Christakis recently pointed out how content designed for small children such as Baby Einstein moves so fast it bears no similarity to the real world. Children growing accustomed to its pace, rewire their brain to expect the same from their surroundings, resulting in difficulties concentrating and generally coping with real life which they perceive as too slow moving.
What about those times you googled something online, found something else, and wished you hadn’t. Maybe it made you feel sick, maybe it made you curious to see more. What if you had been younger and more impressionable, vulnerable – how would it have altered your personality? Could it have changed the things you did, or the things you let others do to you?
4. Emotional intelligence
Papers use this term as if it’s the latest craze in management techniques. It’s a set of skills that encompasses understanding what makes you tick, relating to others and how to stop them pushing your buttons, believing in yourself, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, non-verbal communication, and being the kind of person that naturally puts their peers at ease. In other words it’s being a normal decent human being.
Getting friends on Facebook or sharing virtual worlds with fellow gamers requires its own skills, but won’t teach you emotional intelligence. Playing with other children and adults, having arguments, sharing victories, joys, disappointments, these are some ways that help people become good at relationships.
5. Free Time
With more computing power and interconnectivity available in each of their pockets than were available to NASA astronauts not so long ago, humans should be delivering levels of productivity unheard of, in their personal time, and having more quality one-to-one time with their families and friends. Instead something else seems to have happened. We fill our spare time with instant news addiction, reading Facebook, following trending tweets and videos, stalking, ranting…. It isn’t that we want to do these things, but the devices and apps are so well built, so beautiful, their AI knows us so well, that we feel compelled to use them.
Sean Parker, a former president of Facebook recently explained in Philadelphia how as the inventors of Facebook, they had built a system that creates positive feedback loops to make the users feel good. As they were developing it they asked: “how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”. Parker says “It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. The quote that made headline news though was “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”.
Given the circumstances, Tech-Free Parents need to be way more protective than would have been necessary in previous years. In a world that’s constantly changing, they have a tough job. They have to work to mitigate the immediate and longer-term risks to their children. At the same time they need to give them the tools they need to ensure they can grow up naturally in our information-based society, without it sapping their potential, whilst still developing expertise (when the time comes) in the high-tech skills they will need to enter higher education and the job market.