Technology is not ruining our kids. Parents (and their technology) are ruining them

It’s not his fault.
It’s not his fault.
Image: Reuters/Mathieu Belanger
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Many of us worry what technology is doing to our kids. A cascade of reports show that their addiction to iAnything is diminishing empathy, increasing bullying (pdf), robbing them of time to play, and just be. So we parents set timers, lock away devices and drone on about the importance of actual real-live human interaction. And then we check our phones.

Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, turned the tables by imploring parents to take control and model better behavior.

A 15-year-old boy told her that: “someday he wanted to raise a family, not the way his parents are raising him (with phones out during meals and in the park and during his school sports events) but the way his parents think they are raising him — with no phones at meals and plentiful family conversation.”

Turkle explains the cost of too-much technology in stark terms: Our children can’t engage in conversation, or experience solitude, making it very hard for them to be empathetic. “In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts,” she noted.

Unfortunately, it seems we parents are the solution. (Newsflash, kids aren’t going to give up their devices because they are worried about how it may influence their future ability to empathize.)

That means exercising some self-control. Many of us aren’t exactly paragons of virtue in this arena. Maybe that’s because we adopted technology later in life and have been furiously adding functionalities—email! a camera! 100 apps!—rather than restraining them. We don’t have the muscles, or at least the habits, of constraint.

Yet we expect, or at least hope, that our kids will somehow magically gravitate toward self-control. (Oh wait, we need to parent them?)

It’s not impossible. Steve Jobs was reportedly a low-tech parent (his family talked about history at the dinner table). The New York Times wrote about how many tech executives in Silicon Valley send their kids to the Waldorf school where screens are banned. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, told the paper that he and his wife instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home.

“My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, ages 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

Turkle suggested that we do what Anderson did: own up to our weaknesses and exercise some initiative. “We have to commit ourselves to designing our products and our lives to take that vulnerability into account,” she wrote.

Behavioral economists would suggest we employ commitment devices, ways to force ourselves to the do the things we know we will not do like automatic 401k contributions, or publicly tracking caloric intake.

Leave your phone behind—you can’t use it if you don’t have it. Create tech-free zones, even if it is just 10 square feet in the house (we have to start somewhere, right?). No phones at dinner seems obvious but how many people actually obey it? Devise a tech lock box, where everyone—parents included—leave their devices in an attempt to have a conversation? Give the youngest the key.

And if all else fails, rest assured that the kids might be okay. Turkle told Quartz that she is more hopeful for the next generation because of the example we are setting for them. “They know what it felt like to have parents who had no time for them and turned instead to their phones,” she said (in an email, which she acknowledged was ironic). “That sense of cost and loss, more than any notion of ‘discipline’ is what I think is going to get us to another place.”