What will device culture mean for our kids?

The last morning of my Colorado ski weekend was spent in the hotel lobby having breakfast and waiting for the airport shuttle to arrive. There was a family sitting across the way — two parents and three kids — who looked to be done eating. The two adults were sitting on either ends of the table, both staring into their iPhones. Two of the children, who’s faces I could see, appeared to be rather bored. In a judgmental moment, I wondered what the adults were thinking. Was this acceptable or were they simply oblivious to their behavior? More curiously, I wondered what they were doing on their devices that had them captivated?

 Photo: D. Pendagast
Photo: D. Pendagast

It would be easy to rat out parents for their lack of…parenting. But this is not about telling parents how to be a parent and more about whether or not we are giving thoughtful consideration for what our device usage will mean for our kids. I remember the first couple times I babysat and how tempting it always was to stick a VHS tape of Scooby-Doo and let the kids zone out on front of the television. It would happen, but towards the end, after we had played tag or hide-and-seek or whatever game we would play. With devices and screens in all of our hands, to what unintended consequences will we be subjecting our young people?

Jean Twenge, writing for The Atlantic:

But the impact of these [smartphones] has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.

It is not enough to say that parents need to educate themselves. Dr. Twenge is helping lead a group of investor activists aimed towards Apple Inc. and their iOS device software. They are publicly advocating that Apple integrate more stringent parental controls to both monitor and limit the usage or screen time that children have of these devices. In an interview with On Point, when asked why this is a problem for Apple and why this doesn’t point to a need for more attentive parents, she quickly points to other initiatives that Apple has taken up (e.g. climate change, social justice) and how it has positively contributed towards its bottom-line.

I did not find her interview compelling. I am not yet convinced this is a technological problem in need of a technological solution. Why should parents not be held more responsible? Are there no third-party apps that can track your child’s usage? The example that came to mind when hearing this was when automobile manufacturers were required to include seatbelts, this makes sense. Accidents happen and sometimes we are not at fault when they do. Regulations and laws requiring such safety measures are necessary. Personal device use however seems to fall outside of this. What is it that companies like Apple are responsible for here? Has designing for addiction created a valid rationale for us to demand Apple and others implement their own “seatbelts” to safe guard children and others from excessive use? How do we or how have we proven this already?

I wonder how exactly to design for this. Does the phone shut down after a period of time or does it only accept incoming phone calls from approved people after a certain time? Their research suggests that it is not important what the person is doing on the device, but a positive correlation between total usage time and risk to mental health.

My lens on this is my now two-year-old nephew. My brother and my sister-in-law are absolutely amazing to allow us to FaceTime with him and regularly share photos and videos. We get to see his personality developing and even giggle when we see a bit of ourselves in him. Being a part of his life is increasingly becoming of utmost importance. (You know I am bad when I show more photos of him than some of my co-workers do of their own kids.) Yes, I know I use my iPad and iPhone around him and this all has me concerned about my own device usage and how we should be presenting ourselves to him in these formidable years.

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