The Temptation of Tech

Be honest. How many times today have you picked up your smartphone to check for a new email or to see how many likes you got for your last post or tweet? And how many hours in total do you devote a week to social media? As much as you spend exercising or having quality family time? If you have concerns about your child’s, or your own, constant scrolling, clicking and watching of screens you’re not alone. In fact, a leading professor of business and psychology, Adam Alter, believes it’s time for all us to recognise the unspoken truth – we are addicted to tech and we need to break the habit!

Would it surprise you to learn that despite Steve Jobs declaring to the world that the iPad was the best way to listen to music, look at photos, play games (and that we should all own one) he refused to let his own children use the device? Or that many tech experts also enforce strict limits at home because, ‘they have seen the dangers of technology firsthand’. Startling revelations such as these are the opener to Adam Alter’s new book, Irresistible, in which he offers practical advice on how we can, and should, use technology differently – leading to a happier and more relaxing life. Alter states, ‘Technology is not inherently bad’, but it is ‘ripe for abuse’ and while we can’t, nor should we, abandon tech, we need to ensure we have plenty of ‘work-free, game-free, screen-free downtime so that we and our children find it easier to resist the lure of behavioural addiction.’

When asked if he thinks us parents are living in La-La Land, if we expect to easily enforce limits on our children’s screen time* while most of us are also glued to our screens for an average of a whopping three hours a day, his answer is an emphatic, ‘Yes!’ Adding, ‘One of the biggest uncontroversial recommendations is that parents should practise what they preach – not just with respect to screen time but for any behaviour they are seeking to model.’ For example, we all know of the health benefits of a good night’s sleep and encourage a good bedtime routine with our children from birth, yet experts consistently warn us against common habits such as recharging mobile phones beside our bed at night and not looking at screens for at least one hour before bedtime… but are we listening?

Today’s parents are faced with a dilemma which is unique to a new generation with the average household containing at least seven internet devices. Also, there are currently no official medical or governmental guidelines on screen time in the UK. There is advice from organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) which is children should have TV-free days, or have two-hour limits on the time spent in front of screens, but is that enough?

In the US, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents and caregivers develop a ‘family media plan’ that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family. Among their recommendations are: For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. For children aged two to five years, limiting screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programmes with parents (who should help them understand what they are seeing) and for children aged six and older, place consistent limits on the time and the types of media and designate media-free times, such as dinner, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Other countries have gone much further in placing a regulated parental responsibility over screen time use. Taiwanese parents are now legally obliged to monitor their children’s screen time and the Taiwanese government can levy £1,000 fines on parents of children under the age of 18 who are using electronic devices for excessive periods of time. Similar measures exist in China and South Korea which aim to limit screen time to a ‘healthy’ level. Alter comments, ‘I think guidelines are useful, in that they’re better than not having guidelines at all, but they’re fairly vague. One reason for their vagueness is that we honestly don’t know exactly what works and what doesn’t, for two reasons. First, there isn’t a lot of solid research on how screens affect kids (especially into adulthood, since the generation of kids born into the screen era is still young) and second, there’s a balance to be struck between protecting our kids from too much screen time and making them feel left out or ostracised if their friends are using screens.’

In his opinion then could governments do much more to control and regulate the companies who rule the world when it comes to gaming and social media, with particular reference to games and apps aimed at children?

‘Yes, absolutely. Governments should consider all options. One of those options is to impose a sort of firm Hippocratic Oath on tech developers: “Above all else, do no harm.” Legislation should flesh out what that means exactly, but it’s a good rule of thumb. When a tech company makes changes to its products, it should be forced to explain how they’re good for consumers (or at least not bad!) and not just good for their bottom line.’

Within the pages of Irresistible: Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free, Alter explains that children are particularly vulnerable to addiction as they lack the self-control that prevents many adults from developing addictive habits. Regulated societies protect children by refusing to sell them alcohol and cigarettes, but very few regulate behavioural addictions e.g. kids will play video games for as long as their parents will allow. As the first generation of native iPad users haven’t reached their teens, there is no way of knowing how they will differ from their peers who are just a few years older. He warns, ‘As children of the 80’s and 90’s we stored dozens of phone numbers in our heads and interacted with each other, rather than devices. Depriving our kids of small doses of mental hardship by handing them a device that makes everything easier is dangerous – we just don’t know how dangerous.’

Alter also reveals one of the most shocking pieces of research concerning young children and their use of screens that he came across while researching his book was one small, tentative study suggesting that kids become less capable of discerning subtle differences in emotions (e.g. is this person slightly sad or slightly angry?) when they spend a lot of time on screens. He goes on to explain the frightening truth behind why this should be a concern: ‘The finding hasn’t been replicated in a larger sample, but if it’s accurate, it might suggest that screen time is producing a generation of humans who are, in some ways, less socially capable than past generations.’ The most worrying outcome about society’s addiction to technology for me is the idea that we are becoming socially numb. There’s evidence that our threshold for boredom – the idle moments when creative ideas flourish – and our capacity for creative thought are declining.’

And his one final parting piece of advice that he would give to parents to help get the balance right? ‘Construct rules that the household lives by. For example, we never use our phones at dinner time. No matter where we are, what we are eating, or whom we are with. Rules like those are critical and they should be explained to kids early and often. It’s better to make policy decisions that are easy to explain rather than imposing what seem like arbitrary rules on children, who are much more likely to respond favourably if they can understand while the rule might be worthwhile.’

Adam Alter is an Associate Professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and holds an affiliated appointment with the Psychology Department. He has written for The New York Times, New Yorker, Wired and numerous other publications.  Irresistible by Adam Alter is out now in paperback (Vintage, £8.99). 

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