Even tech ex­ec­u­tives fret about their kids’ smart­phone ad­dic­tions


SAN FRAN­CISCO Like a lot of par­ents, Mike Her­rick oc­ca­sion­ally sees his 13-year-old daugh­ter get­ting lost in her smart­phone and won­ders: Is tech­nol­ogy mess­ing with chil­dren’s brains, even as it en­light­ens and em­pow­ers them in ways that weren’t pos­si­ble when his gen­er­a­tion grew up?

What sets Her­rick apart is his job. He is a prod­uct and en­gi­neer­ing ex­ec­u­tive at Ur­ban Air­ship, a com­pany in Port­land, Ore., that makes on­line tools that send the kind of re­lent­less no­ti­fi­ca­tions that can make peo­ple act like bears near a honey pot.

The ten­sions be­tween the pride Her­rick takes in his pro­fes­sion and his parental qualms about tech­nol­ogy tug par­tic­u­larly hard when he sees his daugh­ter, Lau­ren, and her friends tex­ting each other in­stead of talk­ing — when they’re sit­ting five feet apart. Or when he hears a friend jok­ingly de­scribe him as a “mo­bile arms dealer.”

At times like those, Her­rick wor­ries that tech­nol­ogy may be hav­ing a cor­ro­sive ef­fect on so­ci­ety, even though he feels no re­grets about his job be­cause he un­equiv­o­cally be­lieves that Ur­ban Air­ship’s tools are a net ben­e­fit to peo­ple.

“You can’t help but feel the jux­ta­po­si­tion,” says Her­rick, 44. “The power of this age we live in is that it has given every­one ac­cess to all this in­for­ma­tion and the abil­ity to stay con­nected to peo­ple, but how do we man­age it bet­ter?”

It’s a ques­tion be­set­ting other tech­nol­ogy ex­ec­u­tives, too. Many say they’re try­ing to rec­on­cile their ful­fil­ment from work­ing in a fi­nan­cially re­ward­ing in­dus­try that they say has made life more ef­fi­cient, en­joy­able and af­ford­able for peo­ple with their mis­giv­ings as par­ents about the ad­dic­tive­ness of de­vices and so­cial me­dia that now de­fine much of daily life.

Tech­nol­ogy “can be like open­ing your re­frig­er­a­tor door when you are hun­gry and just star­ing into the abyss,” says Keith Mes­sick, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer for Dial­pad, a spe­cial­ist in phone sys­tems that in­cor­po­rate voice con­trols and other ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. “That’s when I re­coil just a lit­tle bit.”

He is es­pe­cially trou­bled when he sees his own 13-year-old son mind­lessly thumb at his screen. Mes­sick also wor­ries that the ease of tex­ting and post­ing on so­cial me­dia is turn­ing kids into poor com­mu­ni­ca­tors who write things they’d never say in per­son or in a phone con­ver­sa­tion — on the rare oc­ca­sion when they use their de­vices to make a call.

“This is the world we live in,” Mes­sick says. He says he still be­lieves that tech­nol­ogy ’s “pos­i­tives far out­weigh the neg­a­tives.”

Most par­ents have sim­i­larly mixed feel­ings about tech­nol­ogy, whether or not they work in the in­dus­try. About two-thirds of U.S. par­ents worry that their teenage chil­dren spend too much time im­mersed in a screen, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased in late Au­gust by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. Nearly three-fourths of par­ents said they thought their teenagers were some­times dis­tracted by their phones dur­ing con­ver­sa­tions with them.

Yet 86 per cent of the par­ents say they’re very or some­what con­fi­dent that they have de­ter­mined an ap­pro­pri­ate amount of screen time for their teens. Slightly more than one-third of par­ents ac­knowl­edged spend­ing too much time on their phones them­selves, the sur­vey said.

The con­cerns about chil­dren’s ris­ing de­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy ex­tend be­yond par­ents. They some­times also vex other rel­a­tives, like aunts and un­cles. One of them is Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook, who re­vealed in a pub­lic ap­pear­ance this year that he tries to keep his nephew off so­cial net­works.

Ap­ple is try­ing to ad­dress some of the prob­lems it helped create with the 2007 in­tro­duc­tion of the iPhone by of­fer­ing more fea­tures for par­ents to mon­i­tor and con­trol how much time they and their kids spend on the de­vices.

The new tools, part of the lat­est ver­sion of an iPhone oper­at­ing sys­tem re­leased last month, can even be de­ployed to keep kids off dis­tract­ing apps like Face­book, Snap and In­sta­gram com­pletely — or just at cer­tain times of day. Google in­cluded sim­i­lar con­trols in its lat­est ver­sion of the An­droid oper­at­ing sys­tem, which pow­ers most of the world’s smart­phones.

In­sta­gram co-founder Kevin Sys­trom thinks that is a good idea. He is al­ready vow­ing to limit his now-10-month-old daugh­ter’s even­tual ex­po­sure to de­vices and so­cial me­dia as she grows up.

At the same time, Sys­trom, 34, is hop­ing his daugh­ter will em­brace tech­nol­ogy as he did when he be­gan us­ing com­put­ers and surf­ing the in­ter­net as a boy. He cred­its his own early fas­ci­na­tion with tech­nol­ogy for in­spir­ing him to create In­sta­gram — an app with more than one bil­lion users whose suc­cess has re­warded him with an es­ti­mated per­sonal for­tune of US$1.5 bil­lion.

“Ob­vi­ously, like any­thing — whether it’s food, or drink — mod­er­a­tion is key,” Sys­trom says. “I think we are in a world where we have to de­velop opin­ions on what that mod­er­a­tion is and how to do it.”

Brian Peter­son, Dial­pad’s co­founder and vice-pres­i­dent of en­gi­neer­ing, loves his job and tech­nol­ogy, too — so much so that he gave both his daugh­ters iPads around the time they were two.

It seemed fine at first, be­cause they were us­ing the tablets on in­struc­tional apps that helped them learn things like play­ing a vir­tual pi­ano. But then he started to no­tice that the girls, who are now six and four, seemed to be spend­ing most of their iPad time watch­ing YouTube videos of other kids play­ing with toys or do­ing some­thing else that he and their mother wished they weren’t.

“That is when we had our freak­out mo­ment and said, ‘Hold on a mo­ment, no more of this drug,’ ” Peter­son says.

Now, he has de­cided to hold off on get­ting his daugh­ters smart­phones un­til they reach mid­dleschool age — or, even bet­ter, as presents when they grad­u­ate from high school and are ready to head off to col­lege.

“I am just pray­ing by the time that my kids re­ally need a smart­phone, they have re­ally good parental con­trols, Peter­son said.

The power of this age is thatithas given every­one ac­cess to all this in­for­ma­tion ... but how do we man­age it bet­ter?


Like many tech pro­fes­sion­als, Ur­ban Air­ship prod­uct and en­gi­neer­ing ex­ec­u­tive Mike Her­rick is try­ing to rec­on­cile his ful­fil­ment from work­ing in a re­ward­ing in­dus­try with his mis­giv­ings as a par­ent about the ad­dic­tive­ness of mo­bile de­vices and so­cial me­dia.

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