It’s hard to imagine that on this date 10 years ago, the first generation iPhone was just an idea. Now, our smartphones are a mission-critical part of our everyday lives: we keep them close at hand to manage our emails, our schedules, our fitness and more.
But these same devices have a dark side: they’re incredibly addictive. By constantly checking our social feeds, we run the risk of missing out on the world around us. Some studies have even linked technology addiction to anxiety and depression — and vulnerable groups such as children and teens often experience the worst of these effects.
In a recent survey of more than 1,200 parents and teens, Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based media education nonprofit, studied current technology addiction trends and came to the following conclusions:
- Internet addiction can have significant consequences on children’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.
- Digital lifestyles, with frequent multi-tasking, can hurt our ability to remain focused.
- Media and technology use is a source of tension for many families.
- Problematic media use may be related to lower empathy and social well-being.
- Despite conflict, the majority of teens and parents feel that devices have had no effect on, or have even helped, their relationship with each other.
We recently sat down with Common Sense Media’s Founder and CEO, Jim Steyer, to explore the methodology behind their technology addiction report, how to identify technology addiction and how anyone can learn to unplug.
To what extent is technology addiction a problem in our society and why? What types of individuals are most vulnerable and affected?
That’s actually a really important question, one that our most recent research reports, Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance (2016) set out to answer. Last fall, our Common Sense Census found that tweens and teens spend up to nine hours a day with media, not including in school or doing homework. That number was staggering to us — that is more time than kids spend sleeping, in school or with their parents. The Common Sense research team decided to take a hard look at what exactly we know about technology addiction and overuse. We found that technology use can impact the development of empathy in children, and cause tension in families. Our research showed that one out of every two teens feels addicted to her mobile device, and a third of families report daily conflict over their use.
What are some of the ways that you see technology addiction taking shape? What are some early warning signs? How do these vary across the demographic spectrum?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that technology addiction isn’t a formal diagnosis, so what we’re really focused on is problematic technology use. That can be anything from feeling a constant need to be connected, to the point where it disrupts daily life, to trouble focusing or constantly being in conflict with parents or others. If it feels like an ongoing struggle, or a source of tension in your family, then chances are something isn’t right. We want to see kids use technology and media as a means to connect with others, create amazing works and expand their perspectives. So when technology has them retreating from the rest of the world, as parents we need to take a closer look and figure out what’s going on.
Why is it important for technology leaders to host cross-functional discussions around technology addiction? Why should this topic extend beyond the realm of mental health?
We are living in a transformative era that promises to have significant effects on our children. That’s a really big deal, not only from a mental health perspective, but also in the larger context of how we interact with each and every other person in our lives on a daily basis. The leaders in the tech industry have a responsibility to weigh kids’ best interests — and to be honest with themselves and with consumers about the potential effects of their products. We are starting to see some apps that help kids self-regulate screen time or help them stay on task, but we could definitely stand to see more of that. The tech industry needs to step up and show that they are vested in the futures of our kids.
What types of stakeholders should participate in the solution and why? Based on your published research, what are the key discussion points that you feel most need to be tackled?
All of us have a stake in how technology is impacting kids and families. Parents, educators and administrators, researchers, policymakers and the tech industry all have a role to play in how we face the daunting results of technology on our kids. We need an investment in fresh research to make sense of how the digital age has affected our kids’ social, cognitive and neurological development. Policymakers are responsible for ensuring our kids are safe, protecting their privacy and keeping advertisers in check. Parents and educators, those closest to the most important piece of the puzzle, are responsible for teaching kids how to be safe, productive digital citizens through modeling good behavior and providing mentorship.
How can startup leaders develop more awareness about this topic? How does awareness trickle down to the decisions that companies are making about their products, marketing, etc.?
We can give social media startups the benefit of the doubt and assume they started with an idea they thought was genuinely beneficial to teens and their parents — adding in elements such as geolocation or anonymity. Anyone who was ever a teenager knows how particularly adept they are at bending the rules or stretching the utility of a tool to aid in their risky behaviors. The teenage years are, and have always been, a time of taking risks, pushing boundaries and developing a sense of self. As long as these things are done safely, it shouldn’t be problematic. But what we’ve done is to give them powerful tools to reach thousands, if not millions, of viewers instantly and permanently.
I absolutely believe startups have a duty to ensure that kids are safe and protected while using their apps. This means being responsible with their sensitive data, managing communities and certainly making sure that anything alarming is brought to the attention of the right people. These are bright people, with creative innovative minds, and there’s no question that if they make protecting kids a priority, it can be done. With technology increasingly becoming a fixture in the classroom, ed-tech developers, in particular, have a responsibility to design their products with privacy in mind. To help schools and educators find the tools with the best privacy policies, and to urge other developers to follow suit, Common Sense just launched a Privacy Evaluation Platform, a comprehensive resource that rates ed-tech products on the strength of their policies. For families, knowing what type of content is important. That’s why we created a guide to family-friendly movies that make the most of your time in front of the television.
Given your unique bird’s eye perspective into the topic of technology addition, what are the biggest areas to prioritize?
We all have to take a long hard look at the role technology plays in our lives. Even for just a day, keep track of how often you are on your phone (believe it or not, there’s an app for that). Be mindful of how often you reach for your phone, when it’s a distraction, and when it probably wasn’t necessary. Do you look at your phone while driving? All of these seemingly small behaviors send a strong message to our kids about how we incorporate phones into our daily lives.
There are easy, manageable ways to create a healthy relationship with technology in your family:
- Set aside some sacred spaces or times where phones aren’t allowed for everyone, whether that be the dinner table or in the hour or two before bedtime.
- When your kids tell you about their day, make sure you are looking at them.
- Talk to your kids about their favorite things to do online, and discuss the pitfalls to avoid.
- Make sure they feel supported and trusted so that if there ever is an issue, they know they can come to you without fear.
- Ultimately, model the behavior you want to see in your kids.
What are the biggest technology addiction issues that need the most attention but are going unresolved?
What we really need is more research on how technology is affecting kids and teens developmentally. The existing research suggests that there is cause for concern around how technology affects our ability to focus and feel empathy, but there is a gaping hole where it matters most: our kids. At a time when tweens and teens’ brains are going through major developmental changes, they are often getting their first phones and social media accounts. We just don’t know what the long-term outcomes are going to be, and we owe it to our kids to help them navigate this remarkable reality we live in.
Our mission at Common Sense has always been to advocate on kids’ behalf, to ensure that every kid has the tools and opportunities they need to thrive. That mission is more important than ever before because teachers and parents, while integral in providing guidance and advice, shouldn’t have to shoulder the enormous responsibility alone.