Neglected Child

Our Kids Are Tech Addicted. We Can Help.

It’s not your imagination: Screens are doing something to our kids.

 

Just ask Tara Savedra, a speech-language pathologist based in Edmond, Oklahoma. She’s been working with students for almost 20 years – since before social media, smartphones, or iPads. Over time her experience had taught her what to expect about how kids act, how they react, and how they operate. But about a dozen years ago, not long after the dawn of smartphones and social media, something changed.

“I started noticing that students couldn’t cope with the basic challenges of everyday life. Small stressors seemed to elicit huge reactions,” she says. “I didn’t connect it at first.” Then one day she was at home with her kids on a snow day, and she saw it with her own eyes: her own children irritable and overreacting. “I thought ‘wow, behavior is different in my house today.’”

Tara wasn’t imagining things. Recent research reported by The Atlantic bears out her observations and offers convincing reasons for kids’ behaviors – multiple tiers of reasons.

Tara Savedra, speech-language pathologist
Tara Savedra, speech-language pathologist

It starts with the assertion that it’s not our kids that have changed. Rather, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, what’s changed is childhood itself. He explains that in the 1970s and 80s kids experienced a childhood that was largely outdoors and largely unsupervised by grownups. That kind of play and exploration meant that kids naturally learned how to do things like “make their own choices, resolve their own conflicts, and take care of one another,” he says.

But over the last 50 years the world changed. First it became less safe, and parents became less willing to let their kids play up and down the block much less in their own front yard. Then came the internet, which moved kids’ activities – and socialization – from outside to inside, and from in-person to screen-based. By 2010, the time young people spent with their friends in person was down to about one hour each day. At the same time, their screen time skyrocketed. Today kids average about five hours each day on social media. 

Which takes us back to that snow day Tara spent with her kids. It was on that day she got an email that would change her understanding of what was going on and set her on a mission. The email was from the non-profit PESI, and it was advertising a course on tech addiction in children.

“I thought, oh my gosh, is this the missing link?” Tara signed up the same day, and she’s been preaching what she learned to anyone who will listen – parents, teachers, principals, and non-profits– ever since. 


Addiction Is Money

“There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software.”  –Edward Tufte, Yale Computer Scientist

One thing Tara learned is that the five hours of screen time kids get each day is no accident. It’s by design. Social media companies employ adolescent and adult psychologists to exploit human brains in order keep users – including our children – addicted to their platforms. They do this because they know if they can use things like infinite scrolling, social gaming, progress bars, and push notifications to keep kids online, they can sell more advertising. 

Tech companies also know that controversial, inappropriate, dangerous, hateful, and extreme content gets more views. So they engineer their algorithms to continually serve up divisive content, misinformation, and even dangerous challenges, because that’s what is most likely to keep kids glued to their devices – and to earn the companies billions of dollars each year.   

To put it another way, tech companies are selling our kids’ brains to the highest bidder every single day.

And there really is a science to it. According to PESI’s Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, a brain on tech looks just like a brain on drugs. Interactive screens, especially social media screens, cause an increase in dopamine in the brain, which puts kids in “fight or flight” mode. Which means that all of those behaviors she was observing – irritability, feelings of being overwhelmed, quickness to anger, anxiety, and struggling to regulate emotions – suddenly make sense.

And these symptoms can be compounded by other issues. If a child already has a mental health diagnosis, screen time only exacerbates it. And if their parents are also staring at their screens all evening, kids are also dealing with a lack of eye contact. And science tells us that a lack of parental eye contact is linked to a lack of empathy in children. That’s because eye contact is crucial to developing the part of the brain that recognizes and responds to human emotion. Which means that, thanks to screens, we are developing an entire generation of kids who’ve missed out on the opportunity to develop those critical skills.

The result is a dramatic increase in online bullying, body image issues, and other mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation in kids – all toxic fallout from the tech companies’ drive to addict more users and drive more revenues.


Starve the Beast

You want to know the crazy part?

Kids don’t even like being on these platforms. A recent University of Chicago study also reported in The Atlantic asked 1,000 college students how much money it would take for them to deactivate their Instagram or TikTok accounts for one month. The average answer was just $50. And when they were asked how much it would take to deactivate if all their friends deactivated too, the answer was less than $0 – many students said they would actually pay money for that to happen.

According to experts, it’s that kind of collective action that’s key to solving the problem. Think about it. If only one student decides to go off social media, now they’re left out, they’re a nerd, and they’re shamed by their peers. But if they stay on social media, they’re forced to endure all the bullying and other ugliness. That’s why there are growing stories of “Luddite” clubs – groups of kids who collectively agree to switch to flip-phones (or ditch their phones altogether) and hang out together outside to do things like read, draw, paint, talk about the world…and take their childhood back. 

Speaking of collective action, schools are getting in on it too. Many ban cell phones in classrooms, and some have successfully banned them altogether, with great results. Some colleges even offer “unplugged scholarships” – like Franciscan University in Ohio, which awards $5,000 to students who pledge to go smartphone-free for the remainder of their undergraduate career.

And there are things families can do collectively, too. “The most valuable thing to tech companies is your time and attention,” Tara says. “We don’t have to give it to them.”

She recommends trying a screen detox. Start by experimenting with “no tech zones” at the dinner table, in the car, or right before bed. Or take regular time off together from social media – whether for a day, a week, or even a month – and replace that time with things that allow your brains to rest and recuperate. Go for walks outside, play games, hang out in a park, gather with friends. And when you’re not on detox, use the limited tools available to monitor and limit screen time for your kids.

Tech addiction didn’t happen overnight, but you’re likely to see the positive effects of screen detox time pretty quickly. By working together, we can give our children back their childhoods; starve the beast that feeds off our precious time, attention, and fears; and build a healthier, more empathetic generation of leaders and heroes.