Students are back in classrooms and parents can finally have a brief respite from worrying about their children’s excessive screen use — or, at least, worrying it is all their fault. This angst peaks each year in the summer holidays, those long, sunny weeks illuminated in large part by the blueish light from children’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. The beep and ping of devices triggers complicated emotions. In many homes, parents simultaneously castigate their offspring’s use of tech and are relieved by it: like some goblin babysitter, it squats in the corner of family life, whispering powerfully, turning children silent and glassy-eyed.
The erratically applied adult phrases ‘That’s enough screen time!’ and ‘Give me that iPad!’ ring hopelessly around family homes, interspersed with squeals of refusal. Cannier parents have worked out that if they cannot contain the addiction they can manipulate it to their advantage: the threat of sudden iPad withdrawal is a behavioural corrective that trumps the useless ‘naughty step’ every time.
There is one group of parents, however, who restrict their children’s use of technology ruthlessly, so keenly are they aware of its potential for distraction and damage. They are the titans of tech, the very people whose job it is to develop and popularise these devices in the first place. Bill Gates, the principal founder of Microsoft, has said he banned his three children from owning a mobile phone until they were 14, excluded ‘tech’ from meal times and restricted its use before bed. His wife Melinda, a former Microsoft executive, said last year that if she could rewind the clock she would have held out further against smartphones: ‘I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets.’
The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, was even sterner: in a New York Times interview in late 2010, he revealed that his children had never used what was then Apple’s exciting new product, the iPad, saying: ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’ Tim Cook, the current Apple CEO, doesn’t have children of his own, but said: ‘I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on’ — including a firm instruction to stay off social media. One might have imagined that the self-proclaimed geeks and nerds of Silicon Valley would be tech’s greatest cheerleaders. Yet it seems that the tech elite are instead keenly aware of just how much effort goes into making devices addictive, and how disturbingly successful that has been. As constant ‘connectivity’ seems to be warping both our political systems and our mental health, some tech pioneers are showing signs of guilt, rendered uneasy by the monstrous reach of their inventions.
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook — who left the company in 2005 — said last year that he had become ‘something of a conscientious objector’ against social platforms. The original thought process behind social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, he said, was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means 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.’ The aim, Parker said, was to create ‘a social validation feedback loop’ that ‘exploits a vulnerability in human psychology’. He added: ‘The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. We did it anyway.’ For those who recognised the enormous potential of a ‘social validation feedback loop’ early, it has brought unimaginable profits. Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, is worth roughly $67 billion. Last summer he wrote a public letter to his new daughter, August, in which he made no mention of tech. Instead, he talked about putting leaves in buckets, reading Dr Seuss books and taking naps. ‘The world can be a serious place,’ he wrote, ‘That’s why it’s important to make time to go outside and play.’
Tristan Harris, a former Google ‘design ethicist’, is now head of Time Well Spent, a non-profit organisation that seeks to reverse the problem of constant distractibility, or the ‘digital attention crisis’. He seems particularly concerned about emotionally fragile teens and their yearning to be liked: ‘We’ve never had 100 million human animals viewing hundreds of their friends having fun without them.’
In the wider world, innumerable children aren’t yet listening to Harris, or to Zuckerberg’s advice on the outdoors, because they’re too busy gaming, posing on Instagram or sending each other disposable messages on Snapchat. A recent survey on behalf of the National Trust found that UK children play outside for an average of just over four hours a week, half the time that their parents did when they were children. One cannot wholly blame technology for that — a reduction in outside play spaces in cities plays its part, as does a heightened parental anxiety about ‘stranger danger’. Yet the tug of computer games and social media certainly contributes to the growing phenomenon of sedentary children cooped up indoors.
Those of us who were children in the pre-internet era might remember similar dire warnings being made about an addiction to television: in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the brash, gun-obsessed character of Mike Teavee was Roald Dahl’s satire on a screen-mad child. Yet the limited choice of programmes — and the resulting creep of boredom — would eventually propel us beyond the front door. I remember spending hours simply hitting a tennis ball against a brick wall, or riding around in circles on my bicycle. To the outside eye, this must have looked like meaninglessly repetitive activity, which indeed it was. Yet it was also relaxing, because I used the time to mull over all kinds of things in my head, including the prolonged pretence that the bicycle was a horse.
Mulling is largely out, as a pastime for children. Reaction is in, provoked by endless electronic diversion. The great and terrifying feat of the internet, delivered through its portable devices, is that it has virtually eliminated boredom. Through it you can access a taste of almost everything, from all over the world — music, history, news, politics, pornography, films, facts, lies and arguments. Many things flow from this digital cornucopia, including fascination, education, self-affirmation, delusion, competitiveness, insecurity, anxiety, outrage, vitriol, insomnia and depression, but rarely boredom. Yet for children it is boredom, not necessity, which has so often been the mother of invention.
In the early days of the internet, the advance of tech was seen as almost wholly positive, an infinite library opening to the grateful masses. Tony Blair, while admitting in the mid-1990s that technology baffled him, was nonetheless a zealous proselytiser for getting the ‘information superhighway’ into schools. If used wisely, the internet remains a powerful educational tool, opening up resources far beyond the sum of those editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica that once gleamed on family bookcases. But excessive use also seems to have negative effects on mental health, particularly among teenagers.
In the US, Dr Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has dubbed the post-millennial generation (those born between 1995 and 2012) ‘iGen’ because they will be the first to have spent their entire adolescence with smartphones. In about 2010 or 2011, Twenge says, she first started to notice striking changes in teenage behaviour: they were going out and getting together with friends less often, while more reported feeling ‘left out’ and claiming that they didn’t enjoy life.
Among US teens, the prevalence of depression has risen steadily in line with smartphone ownership and time spent online. Since 2007, the suicide rate of US 12- to 14-year-olds has doubled. Twenge’s critics say that the rise in depression could have other causes and there is an element of moral panic to tech-blaming, but the notion of damage has stuck.
As suspicions about technology’s dark side increase, the ‘digital detox’ has grown in social status. Some people are making decisive efforts to tune out: sales of ‘dumb phones,’ which deny internet access, rose by 5 per cent globally last year. In a bid to modify the power of the very beast they created, Facebook and Instagram executives are rolling out features such as an ‘activity dashboard’ that tells mesmerised users how long they have spent on sites, and reminds them of when they have hit their quota for the day.
In France, a nation admirably protective of its quality of life, companies with more than 50 employees were formally required last year to set out hours when workers should not be expected to send or answer emails. Otherwise, as the legislator Benoît Hamon told the BBC, one would have the pitiful situation whereby employees ‘leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog’.
This perfectly describes a substantial number of working lives in the UK. What once looked like freedom — the ability to communicate from anywhere, anytime — has hardened into the prison of constant accessibility. The nine-to-five slog, formerly mocked as the daily drudge, now looks deliciously fenced-off, as employees can only dream of evenings free from work hassles.
Children, up to a certain age, can indeed be kept off devices at home. For adults, however, a digital detox is not always an easy or voluntary choice. For many of us, the internet is inextricably tied up not only with our rolling workload, but also the business of shopping, paying bills and other chores. I’m not on Facebook or Instagram, but since my husband and I are both journalists, the constant political bickering and culture wars on Twitter are appallingly and necessarily interesting. At the end of an absorbing evening spent online, however, I often feel unusually gloomy and fretful, as if a moth has eaten bits of my soul. To paraphrase Neil Postman, I think I might be interesting myself to death.
By Silicon Valley measures we’re doing pretty well so far on containing tech in our house… until you get to the adults. My 12-year-old doesn’t have a smartphone, but a brutally basic Nokia that is so dull he frequently neglects to charge it. The extent of my nine-year-old daughter’s tech ownership is a Kindle. They both have access to a large, ancient Apple Mac in the living room, which they mainly use to watch old comedy or bakery shows. This summer, in between squabbling and complaining of boredom, the children were often painting, reading and baking experimental varieties of cakes like 19th-century gentlefolk while I read anxiety-provoking things on a small screen. It’s me I’m worried about, not them.
For adults, tech use may indeed be a combination of choice and compulsion, but we can certainly make a pitch for sanity by cutting down on the part of it that’s a choice. This autumn I’ve resolved to check the habit, just like Bill Gates and all those other billionaire tech bosses do at home, and start showing tech that it’s not the boss of me.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.