Worried about the impact new technology has on the developing mind? An expert once said of an emerging technology: "[It] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of… work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing."
Sound familiar? The expert wasn't talking about iPads or Xboxes — he was talking about the written word. The expert was Socrates, speaking in the the 5th century BCE. (We know this thanks to his student, Plato, who wrote these concerns down.)
More recently, but in a similar vein, we all read Jean M. Twenge's terrifying 2017 article in The Atlantic, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" The piece conjured visions of America as a wasteland of socially isolated and depressed children sitting in their bedrooms on their phones, never venturing out.
Fear of screens is, despite a dearth of actual scientific research proving causation and statistical relevance for supposed screen-related ailments, almost as ubiquitous as the screens themselves these days. At best, this kind of technohysteria inspires parents to get their kids outside, or to monitor their social media usage, but at worst, it contributes to harmful cultural elitism and excludes children like my daughter Esme from a viable form of socialization, interaction, and communication.
That ~fancy intuitive~ screen was the tool that allowed my daughter to tell me she loved me for the first time in her eight years of life.
Recently, I was in an exciting epic battle with the New York State Department of Health's Medicaid office over coverage of an eye-gaze speech-generating device for my daughter, Esmé, who is non-verbal. Medicaid encouraged us to explore (arduous switch-based) devices dating from 1985 (maybe they read the Atlantic article?). But that ~fancy, intuitive~ screen was the tool that allowed my daughter to tell me she loved me for the first time in her eight years of life. Screens, in my home, are life-altering in so many amazing ways.
And my family isn't alone.
A generation ago, parents were "bad" if they didn’t go into debt to get their kids the expensive computing tools that would open all of the world's possibilities for them. Now that those tools are ubiquitous and democratized, with iPads in schools, parents get shamed for using them.
“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and current CEO of 3DR, a robotics and drone company told the New York Times' Nellie Bowles for an article about tech scions who have banned screens from their own children's lives.
I grew up as a country kid in the '80s, with lots of trees and imagination. When my stepfather came along in 1989 with a car phone he blew my 7-year-old mind — and made me feel like the whole world could be grasped. Now that everyone has a smartphone, though, there is a push to "unplug" and "unschool" our kids — to reject the benefits of technology and instead focus on protecting our children from their nefarious influence. (Here's Rudolph Steiner in a quote often used to argue against children's technology use: "Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of education.")
I don't deny the value of nature to inspire children, but screens, too, have a tremendous ability to aid in creativity and exploration. I spoke with a dad, Jason Noxon, who uses screens with his daughter to record music, build webpages, and look up answers to cool questions like “what do slugs eat?” Science writer, Maggie Koerth's family plays “YouTube Roulette," which consists of watching videos as a family on each individual's topic of interest. Koerth says this activity also comes with lessons "about how to tell a good source of information from a sketchy one on the internet."
I also spoke with parents of kids who have limitations on their learning that utilize learning apps to help with learning or physical challenges of a variety of forms. Gay Grossman, whose daughter Lilly is physically disabled and has speech challenges due to low muscle tone, has recently graduated from college.
“Going back to kindergarten, we used screens and technology for every single lesson being learned. I can’t imagine where she’d be today without the technology used to get her through,” Grossman explains to Romper.
A number of moms reached out to say they were using screen-time to communicate with family members and close geographic distances. Kateri Salavitabar lives far away from her family. She and her husband limit screen time for their 11-month-old son, allowing only FaceTime with family.
“I … see a difference in the way my son responds in person to those he sees often by FaceTime than he does to 'strangers' either when we FaceTime them or see in person," she explains. "It has blown my mind that a baby can truly develop close comfortable relationships through this medium.”
Screens can also help parents navigate cultural differences that arise from geographic limitations. Channing Rodman shares that her children are fluent in Polish, their father’s first language, thanks to screen time: “When you're raising kids in an English dominant culture, screens become an incredible link to your target language. Our kids have learned that Polish is the fun language (for them, it's the language of pop culture!) and they now speak it fluently even though I speak almost zero Polish.”
Screens are powerful work-arounds and reward systems for some children. One mom shared that she uses screen time as a non-food-related award system for her children, because her daughter is very sugar-motivated — and she doesn’t want to set her daughter up for an unhealthy emotional relationship with food.
We need to talk more about the ways in which screens can be life-changing for lots of kids: Those with disabilities as well as those without. Because, first of all, these devices aren’t going anywhere. And, like almost anything, there is some kind of reasonable line between using it “never, ever, ever” and “every single hour of the day.” Also, we need to be honest about the fact that we all know: even the loudest “no screen time" parents are likely secretly using screens now and again so they can use the bathroom in peace (and that is totally OK).
A teenager's technology use can only predict less than 1 percent of variation in well-being.
Additionally, using the screen as the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with "kids these days" may obscure some deeper issues that could be linked to the rise of depression, isolation, and anxiety among children. For example, children may be more aware of the realities of climate change, economic insecurity, injustice, school shootings, and terrorism, due to ability to interconnectedness and the democratization of communication technology. However, that does not make the screen the source of the problem.
"Taking it away won't eliminate problems, 'cause it's not the sole reason that they existed in the first place," teenaged Abby told NPR's Anya Kamenetz in a recent look at tension between parents and children over screen-use. And Abby is right, Kamenetz said.
Amy Orben, an Oxford University researcher and author of a new paper analyzing the same data used in the Atlantic article, told Kamenetz that "A teenager's technology use can only predict less than 1 percent of variation in well-being. It's so small that it's surpassed by whether a teenager wears glasses to school." Orben's study also found that “the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use."
Our own misplaced anxiety about something we can easily control side-steps the point that we should be helping guide our children about their anxieties, and demonstrating the ways in which we can make change to things that matter.
Focusing on the ills of screens also may steer us away from some of the beautiful or surprising experiences that can arise thanks to screens. Marie Amsdill is no stranger to the stigma of screen-use.
“I know [screen time] is a controversial topic that can get a ton of parent shame heaped on a person," she begins, explaining that in January, when her oldest daughter was 2, she gave birth to twins, one of whom was born with Trisomy 18, a life-limiting genetic disorder, and was hospitalized for five months. “The only way to juggle having my 2-year-old and twin B at the hospital and still focus on twin A was to let [the] 2-year-old have a lot of screen time."
Even with a baby in the hospital, she fretted about the impact of screen-time on her toddler. "I tried not to let it worry me … Then one day [her daughter] sang the alphabet that I had NOT taught her."
Her realization: "The kids were alright.”
Do screens hold all the answers? Nah. Should they be used indiscriminately? No.
However, increasingly, it feels like limiting access to screens has become the ground upon which privilege plays out in parenting. If children are watching five hours of television a day, the issue is unlikely to be a question of screen budgets. It is more likely to be something greater than the screen. In the converse of the financial sacrifice of purchasing state-of-the-art technology for children a generation ago, it is now often only the most privileged of families who can afford to limit screen time to zero — as we see in the Silcon Valley parents leading the way: eschewing the screens for their able-bodied children through private education, stay-at-home parenting, nannies, and properly supervised nature exploration.
What we know of the data tells us that the story is different, and far more complicated, than "screens are bad." The children of the most privileged in our society are likely to have better health outcomes — not because of their access, or lack thereof, to screens. Because, just like their technology-steeped parents before them, they already had all the benefits stacked in their favor.
Have we failed to imagine the good these developments do or what our response to those developments might tell us about how to make a more equitable society? Instead of shaming other parents for the decisions they make about screen use, perhaps we should be focusing on democratizing those benefits. We should be looking at providing policies that allow parents more time with their children. We should be considering encouraging the valuable socialization that can be facilitated by technology. We should be helping children deal with their anxieties about the world they live in. And we should be looking for ways to use technology to make our children's lives more inclusive.
Perhaps it isn't our children's imaginations are being bludgeoned by the inevitable progress we make in finding technological solutions; perhaps it is our lack of imagination in implementing those solutions.