Screens Are the Latest Invention NOT Ruining Kids
Nir Eyal is the author of the new book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. This piece is part of a weeklong series on how to battle distraction, co-edited by Eyal.
Our fears about what technology and smartphones are doing to our kids has reached a fever pitch. Articles with headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and “The Risk Of Teen Depression And Suicide Is Linked To Smartphone Use” have, ironically enough, gone viral online.
“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” writes Dr. Jean Twenge in The Atlantic. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Convinced by the ominous headlines and fed up with their kids’ tech distractions, some parents have resorted to extreme measures. A YouTube search reveals thousands of videos of parents storming into their kids’ rooms, unplugging the computers or gaming consoles, and smashing the devices to bits in order to teach their kids a lesson.
Parents often turn to convenient myths to explain away the bad behavior of their children.
I can understand parents’ feelings of frustration. One of the first things my daughter ever said was, “iPad time. iPad time!” It became a common refrain, and if we didn’t comply quickly, she’d increase the volume until we did, raising our blood pressure, and testing our patience. As the years passed, my daughter’s relationship with screens evolved, and not always in a good way. She was drawn to spending too much time playing frivolous apps and watching videos.
I’ve seen other parents struggle just like we do. On more than one occasion, we’ve met up with friends and their kids for dinner, only to find ourselves sitting through awkward meals as their kids tap-tap-tap away at their phones.
It’s easy to understand why many parents might think tech is the source of the trouble with kids these days. But is tech really the problem? Was it really my daughter’s gadgets that were compelling her to seek out distraction, or was something else going on?
Parents often turn to convenient myths to explain away the bad behavior of their children. For example, every parent is taught that kids become hyperactive when they eat too much sugar. We’ve all heard a parent excuse their kid’s bratty behavior at a birthday party by blaming the ominous “sugar high.” But the concept of a “sugar high” is bunk. A 1995 meta-analysis of sixteen studies “found that sugar does not affect the behavior or cognitive performance of children.”
Still, parents see what they want to see. A study found that mothers, when told that their sons had been fed sugar, rated their child’s behavior as more hyperactive — despite the fact that their child had been given a placebo. In fact, videotapes of the mothers’ interactions with their sons revealed that they were more likely to trail their children and criticize them when they wrongly believed they were “high” on sugar.
Parents subscribe to other common myths too. Take the “common knowledge” that teens are rebellious by nature. Everyone knows that teenagers act horribly towards their parents because their raging hormones and underdeveloped brains make them act that way. But studies have found that teenagers in many societies, particularly pre-industrialized ones, don’t act especially rebelliously and, conversely, spend “almost all their time with adults.” In one article, “The Myth of the Teen Brain,” Robert Epstein writes, “many historians note that through most of recorded human history, the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood.”
“Each successive historical age has ardently believed that an unprecedented ‘crisis’ in youth behavior is taking place. We are not unique; our fears do not differ significantly from those of our predecessors.”
And we’ve been blaming tech for negatively impacting our children for centuries. As Vaughan Bell wrote in Slate, the Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner worried about handheld information devices causing “confusing and harmful” consequences in 1565. The devices he was talking about were books. An 1883 medical journal predicted a new trend that would “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.” The article was referring to public education. And in 1936, kids were said to have “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the [radio] loudspeaker,” according to Gramophone, the music magazine.
“Each successive historical age has ardently believed that an unprecedented ‘crisis’ in youth behavior is taking place,” the Oxford historian Dr. Abigail Wills wrote for the BBC. “We are not unique; our fears do not differ significantly from those of our predecessors.”
So is tech really “hijacking” kids’ minds or “destroying a generation?” Many experts believe that the truth about tech’s impact on our children is more nuanced than we acknowledge. In a rebuttal to the article that claimed children were on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh wrote in Psychology Today that “there is good reason to think that smartphones and social media may have positive effects as well as negative effects.” Cavanagh continued, “Emerging evidence indicates that like every other question psychologists can think to ask about human behavior, screen use and its association with psychological well-being varies based on a multitude of contextual and personal variables — for instance, how you use media, when you use it, and what else is going on in your life.”
In 2017, Dr. Christopher Ferguson published an article in Psychiatric Quarterly in which he found only a negligible relationship between screen time and depression. Ferguson wrote in an article in Science Daily, “Although an ‘everything in moderation’ message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors.” As so often is the case, the devil is in the digital details.
A closer read of the studies linking screen time with depression finds correlation only with extreme amounts of screen time. Teenage girls who spent over five hours per day online tended to have more depressive or suicidal thoughts, but common sense would have us ask whether the kids who have a propensity to spend excessive amounts of time online might also have other problems in their lives. Perhaps five hours a day on any form of media is a symptom of a larger problem.
Even at these extreme levels of use, a study conducted by Dr. Andrew Przybylski at the Oxford Internet Institute found a very minor correlation with decreased well-being. “We’re talking about a very small impact,” stated Przybylski. “It’s about a third as bad as missing breakfast or not getting eight hours sleep.” Furthermore, the same study found too little screen time, an hour or less, was also correlated with negative well-being when compared to teens who engaged in moderate amounts of screen time.
When kids act in ways we don’t like, parents crave a scapegoat. It’s easy to blame sugar, or technology, or whatever other culprit lurks nearby. We want to believe that kids do strange things because of something outside of their control, which means that those behaviors are not really their (or our) fault.
Of course, technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a “sugar high” for their kid’s bad behavior, blaming devices is a surface-level response to a deeper question. Easy answers avoid having to look into the dark and complex truth underlying why kids behave the way they do. We can’t fix the problem unless we look at it clearly, free of media-hyped myths, to understand the root causes.
When it came to my own daughter, my wife and I wanted to teach her techniques to manage the time she spent on her devices. The risk of too much gadget time is not some sinister brain-melting nonsense, but rather the opportunity cost of engaging in other activities she enjoys, like spending time with friends or playing at the park. She could decide how much screen time was right for her. We taught her the four steps to becoming indistractable and most importantly, modeled a healthy relationship with technology by becoming indistractable ourselves.