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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

On Cyber Skills and Parenting

kid looking at smartphone screen

kid looking at smartphone screen

Should parents keep trying to limit kids’ screen time?

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

The headline was striking: “Let them play: kids glued to phones could save UK, ex-spy chief says.” Earlier this week, Reuters reported on an op-ed published in The Telegraph by Robert Hannigan, the former director of GCHQ, in which he argued that parents should stop trying to limit their kids’ exposure to screens because ultimately that exposure would improve the population’s much-needed “cyber skills.” At first, I had hoped that the Reuters story might have taken statements out of context, or missed a tongue-in-cheek tone (especially since one of Hannigan’s lines read “Your poor parenting may be helping [the kids] and saving the country"). But no—the op-ed was serious.

The argument that we should leave kids glued to screens in order to improve security (economic and/or cyber-) treats security as some kind of abstract good while ignoring the people in need of that security—or, rather, by ignoring the research that shows the impact of excessive screen-time on children and adolescents’ lives.

Here, for example, is what the American Academy of Pediatrics said in the Fall of 2016, as it adjusted its prior guidance on the subject of screen time for young kids in light of “new research and new habits”: First, for babies under 18 months, the AAP still argues that no screen-time is best; for toddlers up to 2, the advice is to avoid “all solo media use” (as opposed to media use that also involves interaction with other people in the room); for preschoolers up to 5, an hour a day of quality screen time is the maximum recommended (but the organization notes that here, too, “caregivers should take part in screen time,” and cautions that many apps aimed at kids don’t provide “quality” screen time).

More strikingly, a recent article in The Atlantic, by Jean Twenge, a researcher who studies generational differences, looks at teenagers and screens—and offers somber conclusions:

The aim of generational study … is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

She cautions that “no single factor ever defines a generation,” but states that “there is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

Later in the article, she adds,

The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and, in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

… Of course, these analyses don’t unequivocally prove that screen time causes unhappiness; it’s possible that unhappy teens spend more time online. But recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness.”

Either way, given these findings, what should responsible parents do, if they care about their kids’ well-being?

In his op-ed, the ex-GCHQ director argues that the UK “lacks the broad ‘cyber skills’ needed now, never mind in the next 20 years,” and needs “young people who have been allowed to behave like engineers: to explore, break things and put them together. Arguably,” he writes,

that is what children always did in their summer holidays. The difference today is that they will want to explore, experiment and break things digitally. Ask a teenager how to “jailbreak” a phone or use a virtual private network to avoid paying for their favourite show, and you will find they are already doing this.

Go ahead—ask a teenager. You might find that Hannigan is wrong, and is wrongly perpetuating some of the mythology associated with the “digital native.” In the journal Nature, a recent article discusses research about this mythology and explains that in fact “[t]he younger generation uses technology in the same ways as older people.”

Back in 2014, researcher Esther Hargittai was already noting that

[w]hile it is certainly the case that most children and young adults have grown up surrounded by technology and indeed spend considerable time using digital media, it is wrong to equate hours spent on such devices with automatic savvy.

Given that many youth only do a handful of things online, (such as watch playful videos, check in on Facebook or contact a friend through Snapchat) they are much less likely to be familiar with countless other web-based activities. Accordingly, they are not knowledgeable about many aspects of the online world. …

She was already arguing that it was “time to move past rhetorical assumptions about the universal Web-savvy of youth. By recognizing that many youth lack considerable Internet skills, we can finally take steps toward introducing relevant instruction into curricula…”

In his op-ed, however, Harriman pushes back against the notion that this can be addressed via curricula. He writes,

Traditional methods will not solve [the “failure to nurture an inquisitive engineering mindset”]. There are many excellent computer science and engineering teachers, but not enough. Fortunately, today’s young people have become good at learning through seeing and doing online. They are teaching themselves in new ways. It follows that the best thing we can do is to focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity. The key is less passive watching and more inquisitive discovery, whether of the content of the internet or how it works.

Unfortunately, even as he advises parents to stop trying to pry their kids off screens during summer vacation, he fails to offer any advice as to how they might go about redirecting the kids toward “more inquisitive discovery.” He also fails to offer any backing for his claim that more screen time (even “inquisitive discovery” time) will lead kids to acquire what he calls an “engineering mindset.”

It bears noting that this is an issue that tech business leaders (who certainly care about the engineering mindset) have considered extensively—in their own families. The solution they’ve come up with, often? Less screen time for kids. Back in 2014, a New York Times article titled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent” commented on this phenomenon: writer Nick Bilton recounted a conversation in which Jobs described how he limited the amount of tech that his kids used; Bilton added, “Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends.” Many of the tech-savvy parents worried in particular about the issue of tech addiction.

The topic of tech addiction and its harmful impact has recently been highlighted by the people who understand it best—those who design the technologies (see, for example, the work of Tristan Harris and Nir Eyal). And addiction is implied, though not directly addressed, in the first sentence of Hannigan’s op-ed: “If you appear to be spending your holiday unsuccessfully attempting to separate your children from Wi-Fi or their digital devices, do not despair.” Later in his piece Hannigan does add that “[b]alance, of course, is good,” but it’s a throwaway line. He follows it with, “But I do not recognise the moral concern about how the internet generation is turning out.”

He misunderstands, or reads too narrowly, that “moral concern.” The “moral concern” is not—or should not be—a critique of the kids glued to the screens. It is a concern about kids being viewed as means to an end (even if the end is a worthwhile one, like national security). It is a concern about companies building addictive products. It is, also, a concern about kids growing up addicted and unhappy, and about myths and misinformation spread online, even by people who mean well.


Photo by igdip, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license.

Aug 11, 2017

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