Is us­ing smart tech bad for chil­dren?

Ad­dic­tion con­cerns grow, but some say this is noth­ing new

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Dwight Sil­ver­man

Any­one who doubts the power that smart­phones and tablets have over young minds should have a chat with Omar Abou-Sayed, who let his old­est child start play­ing with a tablet at age 3.

“When the time came for a bath and it was time to take away the tablet, the al­most phys­i­cal trauma our child went through was so dra­matic that we thought this had to be a man­i­fes­ta­tion of some­thing un­healthy,” Abou-Sayed said.

The re­ac­tion by the boy, who is now 6, made the CEO of Hous­ton­based Ad­van­tek Waste Man­age­ment Ser­vices re­think ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy among the fam­ily’s three chil­dren. “It is vex­ing,” he said. Ex­pos­ing young chil­dren to tech­nol­ogy early was con­sid­ered an im­por­tant part of rais­ing them in the 21st cen­tury, but a grow­ing body of re­search — cou­pled with the real-world ex­pe­ri­ences of par­ents — is chal­leng­ing that think­ing. The com­pelling na­ture of the tech­nol­ogy ap­pears to im­pact de­vel­op­ment at a crit­i­cal time in chil­dren’s lives. Re­search shows that par­tic­u­larly young chil­dren ben­e­fit from as much face time — rather than FaceTime — with both adults and other chil­dren as com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills de­velop.

When kids who have un­fet­tered ac­cess to smart­phones or tablets should be bond­ing with fam­ily and friends, they’re of­ten head-down

in screens, send­ing texts, play­ing games, post­ing pho­tos or — oc­ca­sion­ally — ac­tu­ally talk­ing on the phone.

As a re­sult, two in­sti­tu­tional in­vestors in tech gi­ant Ap­ple Inc. last week urged the com­pany to do more to keep young­sters from be­com­ing ad­dicted to the de­vices.

For par­ents who want to mod­er­ate and mon­i­tor their chil­dren’s us­age, the ubiq­uity of smart­phones and tablets is a con­stant chal­lenge. Smart­phones are now wo­ven into the fab­ric of Amer­i­can cul­ture, an ever-present part of work, com­merce, ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey found 77 per­cent of U.S. adults had a smart­phone in 2017, a re­mark­able adop­tion rate for a piece of tech­nol­ogy that’s only been around for about a decade.

The age for adopt­ing this tech­nol­ogy keeps drop­ping. The mar­ket re­search firm In­flu­ence Cen­tral in 2016 said the av­er­age age that a child gets a phone is 10.3 years old. Pew found in 2015 that 73 per­cent of teens have a smart­phone.

That smart­phone us­age is com­pelling for all ages. A sur­vey by Com­mon Sense Me­dia, a non­profit fo­cused on chil­dren, me­dia and tech­nol­ogy, found that 50 per­cent of teens said they feel ad­dicted to their de­vices.

So­cial me­dia, which is one of the most fre­quent smart­phone ac­tiv­i­ties among kids and many adults, has also come un­der the mi­cro­scope, with mul­ti­ple stud­ies say­ing that its us­age can im­pact well-be­ing. Even Face­book ad­mit­ted in a blog post last year that, yes, the so­cial net­work can make users feel bad if they use it pas­sively. Gen­er­a­tion de­stroyed?

JANA Part­ners, an ac­tivist in­vest­ment group, teamed with the Cal­i­for­nia State Teach­ers’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem to ask Ap­ple to give par­ents bet­ter tools for con­trol­ling smart­phone us­age. As first re­ported by the Wall Street Jour­nal, JANA is try­ing to raise money for a fund that will in­vest in cor­po­ra­tions that want to be bet­ter global cit­i­zens. And the Cal­i­for­nia teach­ers’ re­tire­ment sys­tem, known as CalSTRS, was in­spired by the grow­ing use of smart­phones by stu­dents in the state’s class­rooms.

The en­ti­ties’ lever­age: They con­trol about $2 bil­lion in Ap­ples shares. That’s a small part of Ap­ple’s to­tal val­u­a­tion of more than $900 bil­lion, but it got the com­pany’s at­ten­tion. Ap­ple re­sponded by say­ing it will in­deed beef up its ex­ist­ing parental con­trols in a fu­ture up­date of its iPhone and iPad soft­ware, but did not pro­vide de­tails as to ex­actly what’s com­ing, or when.

In a let­ter posted at think dif­fer­ently about kids. com, JANA and CalSTRS pointed to the work of two re­searchers to make the case that smart­phones and chil­dren don’t mix well. Jean M. Twenge, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at San Diego State Univer­sity, be­lieves that a rise in de­pres­sion and sui­cide rates among teens can be traced to smart­phone use. Dr. Michael Rich, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on Me­dia and Child Health at Bos­ton Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal/Har­vard Med­i­cal School Teach­ing Hos­pi­tal, stud­ies the im­pact of me­dia on health and hu­man de­vel­op­ment.

Twenge wrote a book on kids and smart­phones ti­tled “iGen.” Rich an­swers on­line ques­tions about me­dia and hu­man de­vel­op­ment un­der the brand of The Me­di­a­tri­cian.

Twenge’s re­search and her con­clu­sions are con­tro­ver­sial. She pub­lished some de­tails from her book in a lengthy ar­ti­cle in the Septem­ber 2017 is­sue of The At­lantic un­der the provoca­tive ti­tle “Have Smart­phones De­stroyed a Gen­er­a­tion?” Other re­searchers quickly took her to task, say­ing she’d cherry-picked data and vi­o­lated a car­di­nal rule of re­search: that cor­re­la­tion doesn’t equal cau­sa­tion. In other words, just be­cause more kids are us­ing smart­phones doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean the de­vices are the root cause of teen de­pres­sion and sui­cide.

Twenge said in an in­ter­view that her crit­ics “ig­nored the main find­ing” of her re­search. She ar­gues that her work — com­par­ing data from be­fore and af­ter the 2007 un­veil­ing of the first iPhone — shows the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of the de­vice since it was in­tro­duced.

In­deed, a set of charts in her At­lantic story paints a stark pic­ture of kids who date less, hang out less with friends in real life, are in no hurry to learn to drive, get less sleep and feel more lonely than teens who came be­fore them. Twenge con­cludes the smart­phone is to blame. Pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment

Dr. Jin Ho Yoon, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at the McGovern School of Medicine at the UT Health Sci­ence Cen­ter at Hous­ton, said it does ap­pear Twenge may be leap­ing to a con­clu­sion without a di­rect link­age.

“That’s a huge no-no in le­git­i­mate re­search,” Yoon said. “She paints an elab­o­rate pic­ture of a doomed gen­er­a­tion, but it ap­pears to be mostly based on cor­re­la­tional data.”

But he said the data shown in the charts in the At­lantic piece is “trou­bling,” even without a hard link to smart­phone us­age.

Yoon, whose fo­cus is on ad­dic­tive be­hav­iors, said smart­phones can in­deed cause young peo­ple and adults to be­come fix­ated on the de­vice. The pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment in­her­ent in smart­phones — from get­ting likes on an In­sta­gram post to win­ning a game to the in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion of quick texts with friends — releases a chem­i­cal called dopamine in the brain that is as­so­ci­ated with plea­sure. Get­ting re­peated shots of that chem­i­cal from one source can ul­ti­mately lead to com­pul­sive be­hav­ior — which is a rea­son why one study es­ti­mated peo­ple check their smart­phones an av­er­age of 150 times a day.

He likens smart­phone ad­dic­tion to be­ing com­pul­sive about money.

“Money’s re­ward is not tied to one thing — it brings you a lot of re­wards,” Yoon said. “A smart­phone also gives you ac­cess to all kinds of re­wards.” Noth­ing new

But he also said the cur­rent fo­cus on it par­al­lels pre­vi­ous so­ci­etal re­ac­tions to new tech­nolo­gies.

“We have had th­ese kinds of scares in the past — TV, video games, rock ’n’ roll mu­sic,” Yoon said.

And we’ve been down this road be­fore with the pre­cur­sor to the smart­phone. As per­sonal com­put­ers be­came more preva­lent in the mid-to-late 1990s, and as more homes con­nected to the in­ter­net, par­ents and re­searchers ex­pressed con­cern about the amount of time kids spent on PCs — and what kind of ma­te­rial they were see­ing on those screens. That re­sulted in the rise of parental con­trol pro­grams such as NetNanny, which in­cluded con­tent fil­ters and the abil­ity for par­ents to con­trol how long chil­dren spent at the key­board and mouse.

To­day, many of the fea­tures in those third-party pro­grams are built into the Win­dows and Mac­in­tosh op­er­at­ing sys­tems. And some, but not all, can be found in soft­ware that pow­ers smart­phones and tablets.

Ap­ple points out that it has in­cluded parental con­trol fea­tures — known sim­ply as Re­stric­tions — in the set­tings of iOS, the op­er­at­ing sys­tem in the iPhone and iPad, since 2008. But they are not as thor­ough as those found in their desk­top coun­ter­parts, and are pri­mar­ily aimed at re­strict­ing ac­cess to apps and fea­tures on mo­bile de­vices.

For ex­am­ple, they do noth­ing in terms of lim­it­ing how long a child can use a de­vice, nor do they al­low par­ents to mon­i­tor just what their kids are do­ing. In some cases, Ap­ple’s tech­nol­ogy makes it im­pos­si­ble for par­ents to track a child’s ac­tions. For ex­am­ple, the same tough se­cu­rity that frus­trates law en­force­ment who want ac­cess to an iPhone that may hold crim­i­nal ev­i­dence also means that third-party parental con­trol apps can’t show who chil­dren are talk­ing to in the iOS chat app Mes­sages.

In talk­ing to par­ents and ex­perts, the abil­ity to limit time spent on a de­vice and mon­i­tor ac­tiv­ity are the two most-wanted tools. Those are avail­able in some third­party apps, but they are not built into iOS.

“Hav­ing those two things would go a long way to giv­ing par­ents the tools they need,” Twenge said.

Doni Wil­son, an English pro­fes­sor and the mother of a 16-year-old son, said those fea­tures would help her as a par­ent and ed­u­ca­tor.

Wil­son said her 16-yearold son’s us­age of a smart­phone — which he didn’t have un­til the end of mid­dle school — frus­trates her some­times.

“It is a big con­cern to me if my son doesn’t look at an adult who is talk­ing to him, be­cause he’s tex­ting on his phone,” she said. “I have to take it away from him some­times.”

Wil­son, who is an oc­ca­sional con­trib­u­tor to the Chron­i­cle’s Gray Mat­ters web­site, also sees it in her class­room at Hous­ton Bap­tist Univer­sity. “It’s sad. My class is an hour and 15 min­utes, and I al­ways see th­ese kids try­ing to sneak a look at their phones,” she said. Tech in schools

As with other as­pects of mod­ern life, the smart­phone has be­come a crit­i­cal tool in ed­u­ca­tion. That fact cre­ated fric­tion when Abou-Sayed, the Ad­van­tek CEO, put his old­est child in Hous­ton ISD’s Ara­bic lan­guage im­mer­sion school.

As part of the cur­ricu­lum, Abou-Sayed said, the school wanted the fam­ily to use an app on an iPad that helped with read­ing and speak­ing. But as a re­sult of the fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence with tablets when their son was 3, they did not have an iPad in the home. Any screen time for any kind of de­vice was lim­ited to half an hour a day.

“It was a read­ing ap­pli­ca­tion that al­lows for a com­mon set of books in the class­room,” he said. “The books could be read to a child by the ap­pli­ca­tion, or the child can read it, or the child can record them­selves read­ing it. Here we are, we who have not given our child an iPad in a while, and we are given [an app for] one by the school.”

Michelle Smi­ley, a con­sul­tant and stay-at-home mother in Hous­ton, also re­stricts screen time for her two chil­dren, ages 6 and 8. They don’t have their own phones yet, but “they have asked for them,” Smi­ley said.

“They can use mine, or their fa­ther’s phone, and we su­per­vise that,” she said. “They can’t use tablets dur­ing the week­days, and on week­ends they get 30-minute al­lot­ments.”

Smi­ley and her hus­band could af­ford to put their chil­dren in pri­vate school, and chose a Montes­sori that doesn’t use any tech­nol­ogy in the early years.

“It’s hands-on and ana­log and phys­i­cal, and the kids thrive there,” she said.

But her chil­dren are very much at­tracted to her and her hus­band’s phones when they are us­ing them, say­ing that at­trac­tion is “the most amaz­ing thing ever.”

In those in­stances, she un­der­stands the lure for her kids.

“We don’t use them at meal­time, or when we are go­ing to bed, but it’s very hard not to be us­ing our smart­phones,” Smi­ley said. “So many things in life are chan­neled through it. Kids see that, and they model on our be­hav­ior.”

Mark Mulligan / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Adan Abou-Sayed, left, and his brother, Joaquin, play with a Hous­ton ISD-sup­plied lan­guage app in a smart tablet.

Above, broth­ers Joaquin, 4, and Adan, 6, play chess on the floor of their play­room Wed­nes­day in Hous­ton. At left, Omar AbouSayed sits with Joaquin while he prac­tices his let­ters with a lan­guage app on a smart tablet. Omar and his wife, Mikhal Abou-Sayed, are care­ful to limit the amount of screen time their chil­dren re­ceive, pro­vid­ing nu­mer­ous other op­tions around the house.

Mark Mulligan pho­tos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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