Children should not be guinea pigs for smartphones – 03/29/2024 – Tech

Children should not be guinea pigs for smartphones – 03/29/2024 – Tech


Imagine that a James Bond villain decided to achieve world domination not with armies or drones, but through our brains. They could manipulate our minds to addict us to fantasy worlds, turn us against each other and reduce our ability to concentrate.

Inventing the smartphone would do that. And then persuade us to give it to our children.

Until now, parents who fear that these ubiquitous devices have made children sedentary, distracted and depressed have been bullied by powerful companies, naive teachers and peers.

Moms who beg schools not to assign assignments online, which undermines screen time limits, are told technology is a “life skill” [habilidade da vida].

Parents who fear that cell phones mean their children could be targets of predators and bullies in their own homes are told that GPS tracking keeps children “safe.”

Families who see how online games disrupt learning are told that it improves problem-solving skills. And of course some of this is true.

But it’s impossible to ignore the exponential rise in mental illness in adolescence that has coincided with the ubiquity of the smartphone since the early 2010s.

In a new book, “The Anxious Generation” [A Geração Ansiosa], social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that smart devices and overprotective parents have “warped” childhood developmental processes. It demands that smartphones be banned for children under 14, and social media until they are 16.

Until recently, this would have been considered extreme and unenforceable. But resistance is beginning. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this week signed a bill to ban children under 14 in the state from having social media accounts and make platforms delete those already created.

This follows evidence of dramatically better behavior in schools after a total smartphone ban was imposed last year in Orange County, California.

Opponents argue that such bans are unconstitutional and interfere with parents’ rights to decide what is best for their children. But this ignores the fact that we are all stuck in a classic collective action problem.

It’s hard for any single parent to say no when all the other kids are online — and leaving would make them a social pariah. Children who are most susceptible to the addictive features of social media and apps are likely to resist the most.

Surveys show growing parental support for smartphone bans: in the UK, a recent survey by the charity Parentkind found that 77% of parents of primary school-aged children want a ban for under-16s. The Smartphone Free Childhood [Movimento por uma Infância Livre de Smartphones]led by parents, is gaining momentum.

China was far ahead in seeing the danger. Its digital regulator announced last year that children under 18 should be limited to a maximum of two hours a day on smart devices.

Manufacturers must limit usage through “minor-friendly settings” similar to video game curfews in 2021. Chinese teens can’t watch Douyin, the Chinese version of ByteDance’s TikTok, for more than 40 minutes a day .

Meanwhile, Western TikTok has introduced a default daily limit of one hour for teens, but this is cosmetic: it can simply be turned off.

The fact that China has been much more effective in protecting its children from the excesses of technology should give Western policymakers pause. Discussions in Washington focus on whether ownership of TikTok makes it a threat to national security.

But hyperactive apps and addictive algorithms are already a threat because they diminish children’s mental stability and their ability to learn.

In 2021, one-third of American teens said they were using at least one of the apps YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook “almost constantly.” We are unlikely to win the battle with China over artificial intelligence, or anything else, if we create a generation of zombies.

While China is going after manufacturers, Europe is focusing on the classroom. France, Italy and the Netherlands have banned the use of smartphones in schools; England this year gave teachers the power to search bags and confiscate devices. But how do we deal with life at home and holidays? Here, we parents have to look at ourselves a lot.

One thing that those in charge can control, without legislation, is the use of our own devices. There’s no point preaching to your children about the evils of technology while checking your email at the table. Saying “it’s work” doesn’t work.

I recently saw a boy sitting bored at a table in a restaurant, clearly wanting to talk, being ignored by another child and two adults, all staring at their screens.

Parents of teenagers do not express the same support for banning smartphones as those with younger children. In the Parentkind survey, just 36% of those with secondary school-age children were in favor.

I wonder if not picking up their children from school anymore means they want to know where they are or if they fear the consequences of cutting the habit. One of the good but dangerous qualities of smart devices is how useful they have become for distracting children when parents need to concentrate. In many families, especially post-pandemic, this has become a habit.

We are plunged into a Ray Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451” dystopia, where books are seen as dangerous and people isolate themselves in fantasy worlds through screens.

The Chinese Communist Party and some technology executives are already protecting their children from this curse. It’s time for the rest of us to wake up and stop Big Tech’s runaway experiment in this generation.


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