Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Is Instagram doing enough to stop bullying?

Instagram are rolling out some new mechanisms to reduce bullying, including comment filters and a new camera effect to promote kindness.

New tools to limit bullying and spread kindness on Instagram
While the majority of photos shared on Instagram are positive and bring people joy, occasionally a photo is shared that is unkind or unwelcome. We are now using machine learning technology to proactively detect bullying in photos and their captions and send them to our Community Operations team to review.

But is it enough? As a parent of teenagers (or for anyone really), this article from The Atlantic makes for depressing reading.

Teens are being bullied ‘constantly’ on Instagram
Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so. The velocity and size of the distribution mechanism allow rude comments or harassing images to go viral within hours. Like Twitter, Instagram makes it easy to set up new, anonymous profiles, which can be used specifically for trolling. Most importantly, many interactions on the app are hidden from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers, many of whom don’t understand the platform’s intricacies. […]

Sometimes teens, many of whom run several Instagram accounts, will take an old page with a high amount of followers and transform it into a hate page to turn it against someone they don’t like. “One girl took a former meme page that was over 15,000 followers, took screencaps from my Story, and Photoshopped my nose bigger and posted it, tagging me being like, ‘Hey guys, this is my new account,’” Annie said. “I had to send a formal cease and desist. I went to one of those lawyer websites and just filled it out. Then she did the same thing to my friend.” […]

Aside from hate pages, teens say most bullying takes place over direct message, Instagram Stories, or in the comments section of friends’ photos. “Instagram won’t delete a person’s account unless it’s clear bullying on their main feed,” said Hadley, a 14-year-old, “and, like, no one is going to do that. It’s over DM and in comment sections.”

Too much screen time, or too many screens?

New research has been published on how teenagers and parents feel about the amount of time they’re on their devices.

How teens and parents navigate screen time and device distractions
Amid roiling debates about the impact of screen time on teenagers, roughly half of those ages 13 to 17 are themselves worried they spend too much time on their cellphones. Some 52% of U.S. teens report taking steps to cut back on their mobile phone use, and similar shares have tried to limit their use of social media (57%) or video games (58%), a new Pew Research Center survey finds. […]

Parents, too, are anxious about the effects of screen time on their children, a separate survey shows. Roughly two-thirds of parents say they are concerned about their teen spending too much time in front of screens, and 57% report setting screen time restrictions for their teen in one way or another.

It’s not just a problem for the teenagers, though.

At the same time, some parents of teens admit they also struggle with the allure of screens: 36% say they themselves spend too much time on their cellphone. And 51% of teens say they often or sometimes find their parent or caregiver to be distracted by their own cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them.

Additionally, 15% of parents say they often lose focus at work because they are distracted by their phone. That is nearly double the share of teens (8%) who say they often lose focus in school due to their own cellphones.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

How the shared family computer protected us from our worst selves
Long before phone addiction panic gripped the masses and before screen time became a facet of our wellness and digital detoxes, there was one good and wise piece of technology that served our families. Maybe it was in the family room or in the kitchen. It could have been a Mac or PC. Chances are it had a totally mesmerizing screensaver. It was the shared family desktop.

A very interesting account of what it was like to be a child in the 90s, when all this first started.

At the time, bringing a single computer into the home was a harbinger of progress that many didn’t feel ready for. Thirty years later, the idea of having only one shared device with internet access might as well be primordial. How did that work, exactly? Well, it wasn’t completely without its challenges. Mapping out uninterrupted computer time was maddeningly tricky, and privacy was basically nonexistent. You risked parental fury if a virus shut the computer down because of a visit to a risky site. Space on the hard drive was at a premium, and the computer chair was inevitably among the most uncomfortable seats in the house. Having such a valuable resource with finite availability and keeping it in a communal space required cooperation and compromise from everyone involved.

As much as we might like, we can’t go back to those times. Though there are signs that things might change.

Logged off: meet the teens who refuse to use social media
But when you are from a digitally native generation, quitting social media can feel like joining a monastery. Amanuel was recently asked by co-workers if she had Snapchat. “I said no,” Amanuel remembers, “and I instantly heard, like, gasps. It was like I’d revealed something disgusting.” She explained that she did have a Snapchat handle, but never used it. “Relief came out of their eyes! It was really weird.”

Screen time questions

It’s long been understood that all these screens are changing how we’re interacting with each other. But are parents over-reacting a little?

The touch-screen generation
By their pinched reactions, these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. … On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

Are we just biased, wanting to go back to the good old pre-screen days?

“The war is over. The natives won.” So says Marc Prensky, the education and technology writer, who has the most extreme parenting philosophy of anyone I encountered in my reporting. Prensky’s 7-year-old son has access to books, TV, Legos, Wii—and Prensky treats them all the same. … “We live in a screen age, and to say to a kid, ‘I’d love for you to look at a book but I hate it when you look at the screen’ is just bizarre. It reflects our own prejudices and comfort zone. It’s nothing but fear of change, of being left out.”

Or are we, in fact, the problem?

Parents’ screen time is hurting kids
Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning.

But if our children enjoy playing video games, that’s not a problem, right?

WHO classifies ‘gaming disorder’ as mental health condition
“I’m not creating a precedent,” said Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which proposed the new diagnosis to WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly. Instead, he said, WHO has followed “the trends, the developments, which have taken place in populations and in the professional field.”

So it is a problem, then?

Screen time harm to children is unproven, say experts
Researchers say World Health Organisation’s warnings over ‘gaming disorder’ are premature and say other factors affect child wellbeing.

I’m glad that’s cleared up. It’s not like this is a formative time in our children’s lives or anything.

How our teenage years shape our personalities
The mood swings and stress you experience as you go through puberty can shape your brain to determine the person you will become.

Where did this all start, I wonder. What was it that first tricked us into staring at screens all day?

tamagotchi

My Tamagotchi is everything that went wrong with our future
My smartphone, I’ve realized, is also a Tamagotchi. My laptop is a Tamagotchi. My tablet is a Tamagotchi. These new Tamagotchis have nicer screens and more than three buttons, but more importantly, they’re hooked into much more elaborate guilt trips. Now it‘s not just a virtual pet at stake; it’s my friends, my family, and my work being held hostage in order to keep me pressing these stupid buttons.

Mobile media minefield

The Guardian’s technology ‘agony aunt’ responding to a parent who has a problem with her 14-year-old son’s use of social media.

How can I control my child’s social media use?
The government recognises the risks of being online, but still hasn’t implemented roughly half the recommendations in Dr Tanya Byron’s report, Safer Children in a Digital World, released 10 years ago. And as she has just pointed out at the NSPCC, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp didn’t even exist in 2008.

[…]

If you take these routes, you may be in for an extended game of Whac-A-Mole. It would be better to work towards a negotiated social solution, rather than a technological one.

It’s a minefield all right. We prefer the ‘negotiated social solution’ with our young teenagers, and we make sure as a family we’re all aware of the latest e-safety issues. We try our best to create an open atmosphere at home, rather than anything too heavy-handed, so that they can share with us any concerns they may have with anything they might see or read.

And here’s that NSPCC update from Tanya Byron.

Ten years since the Byron Review – Are children safer in the digital world?
This document reviews the 38 recommendations made in the Byron Review “Safer Children in a Digital World” and discusses how these were implemented. It also considers the influence of political change and online developments in the past decade, in order to contextualise the changes we’re trying to bring about to keep children and young people safe online in 2018.

The TV times are a-changing

A potentially depressing look at the impact that new television technologies are having on family life.

The end of watching TV as a family
For the first time, children aged five to 16 are more likely to watch programmes and videos on devices such as laptops and mobile phones, rather than on television screens. It means that watching television within families is becoming a private activity, individual and solitary. It’s wearing headphones in the bedroom rather than sprawled together in front of the box. It’s Netflix on the mobile rather than a Sunday afternoon television movie. Homes are places where people are alone together.

As a parent of teenagers, that’s something I’ve noticed too; there’s no rush to switch the telly on as soon as they get home from school like we used to. But perhaps we should put our rose-tinted glasses down and not be too quick to equate ‘different’ with ‘bad’. Yes, things have changed but it’s how we, as parents, deal with that change that matters.