Kids and technology: Hard facts, or hysteria?
At about eight p.m. each evening, a little voice calls me. “C’mon,” it says, “it will relax you. You know you want it.”
I tell myself I don’t need it. I’m fine, sitting here watching “House Hunters” reruns with my husband. But it’s no use. I can’t resist the temptation.
With trembling hands, I reach for my tablet and jab the all-too-familiar icon. The screen comes alive with animated googly-eyed characters, bright primary blocks, flashing gold coins, polka-dotted balloons and twirling rockets. I feel my heart quicken with a surge of excitement. When I run out of lives on Toon Blast, I click the Toy Blast icon. I switch back and forth between the two nearly identical games in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy until my daughter yells, “Mom! Are you listening to me?”, my husband bellows at me to come to bed, or my eyes bleed. Whichever comes first.
A few years ago, I used to “tsk” at those “losers” who would post their Candy Crush levels on Facebook. When my aunt suggested I try Words With Friends, I scoffed and condescended. I might gander at a New York Times crossword puzzle or try a round of solitaire, but I didn’t have time for silly apps.
Now here I am, a grown woman, ignoring my children and husband while I poke at cartoon characters on my tablet like some kind of trained chimpanzee. How did this happen?
According to Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked” (2017), tech executives are to blame for me being a Toon Blast junkie. Apparently, today’s industry big shots select apps based on how addictive they are. In fact, the tech industry is now being compared to American tobacco companies. In the 1960s, big tobacco execs realized that their customers’ chemical dependence was their products’ crucial selling point, but they didn’t publicly acknowledge nicotine as addictive until 30 years later. Today’s tech industry is being accused of the same kind of consumer manipulation.
In January, two big investors sent an open letter to Apple, citing the harmful effects of cellphone overuse on children, and calling on Apple to install more parental controls. The research cited in the letter — and all over the internet — is nothing short of alarming.
The letter, citing a study by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, stated: “U.S. teenagers who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely, and those who spend five hours or more are 71 percent more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.”
Another study published last month found that restricting bedroom use of smartphones was related to decreased risk of addiction, better focus, more satisfying relationships and overall happiness. A similar study found teenage girls at particular risk of depression and suicide from smartphone overuse. Some researchers have argued that digital technology is to blame for the delay in young people making social transitions such as working full-time, getting married and becoming parents. More than half of American teens admitted to “feeling addicted” to their smartphones in a 2016 survey by Common Sense Media.
However, other reputable scientists and industry insiders say that the research conducted thus far is inconclusive or flawed, and the worry over mobile device overuse is overblown. Some blame parents for not monitoring their children, while others cite studies showing that cellphone usage has actually benefited young people socially.
The only thing that is clear in this quagmire of sneaky tech executives, blame-deflecting parents and attention-seeking scientists is that, until there is unbiased research based on facts rather than fear or finances, parents have to use common sense in limiting their kids’ tech usage.
All this analysis would normally induce cravings for a few mind-numbing rounds of Toon Blast, but one study I read could cure my addiction cold turkey: a global survey conducted by AVG Technologies found that 54 percent of kids feel unimportant when their parents are distracted by their mobile devices. Oh, the irony.