Is using smart tech bad for children?
Addiction concerns grow, but some say this is nothing new
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.”
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.