To the Zuckerbergs and Mosseris of the World
Let me articulate my rage.
I am a consultant, educator, activist, and most importantly, parent. As a consultant, I advocate a tech-intentional approach to screen use. As an educator, I teach parents how to address the screentime challenges. As an activist, I demand better protection of children’s data and privacy in schools. And as a parent, I am fighting for my kids’ future cognitive and emotional health when I set limits on screentime.
Even as a literal expert in this field, it feels like I am holding back a tsunami with sandbags.
You’re parents too.
That’s the part that enrages me.
You know what you are doing.
And because you’re making so much money doing it, you don’t change.
It’s not your kids who will suffer. We know that. We know you know better.
But it is children who will suffer. There is no question that today’s Big Tech is in many ways a repeat of yesterday’s Big Tobacco.
Your products make it impossible for parents to do what is already one of the hardest jobs– parenting– and I should know, I taught middle school for 12 years.
I know you’ve heard stories like these before, but here’s just a sampling of what I have heard in the past few weeks:
- One dad told me a “random YouTuber has more influence” on his kid than he does.
- One mom told me her 6-year-old hates going to the playground (the playground!) because he’d rather play on his iPad.
- Another parent told me she stays up until 2 AM checking her daughter’s social media pages, because her child has already been hospitalized for an eating disorder and self-harming behaviors and she can’t bear to go through that fight again.
- A teacher described how after remote learning, as she checked back in all the school-issued devices, the amount of porn she found downloaded on them was astonishing.
- Another parent said her child’s school told her she “has” to buy him a phone…for school.
- Another parent said that when her first-grader– a six-year-old– found a way to access porn on his school-issued iPad, the district blamed his parents.
Before you argue “this is a parenting problem” just like you tried to do in the Congressional hearings this past fall, let me highlight a few key points for those who might not be aware of what you’re doing:
- You’ve created a product so potentially addictive that children’s need for dopamine has become like a drug addict’s need for speed (and isn’t it ironic, as Yale computer scientist Edward Tufte points out, that the only two industries who call their customers “users” are illegal drugs and software?)
- Any time you are asked to change your policies or rules, you do the bare minimum, or fail to enforce them, or worse, ignore the flagged content. You know that it takes time to change the law; but tech changes at exponential rates and the laws may never catch up. Certainly not in time to protect today’s children.
- Your default settings aren’t child-centered; they are bottom-line centered.
- You send your own children to low-tech schools, but shove iPads into the underdeveloped hands of the youngest and most vulnerable populations in our country.
- You delay or limit your own child’s access to social media or YouTube (because you know the harm), but play innocent when confronted about your company’s business practices.
- You dangle shiny tech products at schools strapped for resources and support, who sign on the dotted line, not realizing (or maybe not caring) that third party companies now can collect personal and private information about children without parental consent. (And then that data is used against children– to be profiled by police departments, or to be targeted — or not — by certain colleges.)
Don’t even get me started on what you’ve done to the fabric of school communities in the name of “21st century skills.”
Don’t tell me that what children need today to be successful in the future are tech skills that will be obsolete in two years. Scrolling through TikTok is hardly a life skill.
Don’t tell me that “soft skills” are weak or executive functioning skills can be taught at any time because they aren’t and they cannot.
School used to be the one place kids were guaranteed to spend most of their day away from screens. Not anymore.
Exhausted teachers, who’ve been forced to pivot numerous times over the past two years, whose every move is now scrutinized or criticized, let kids scroll on their devices after they finish their classwork or reward their students with screen-based gaming. Many teachers themselves are on their phones during the class day, either because they too are sucked into your bottomless scroll, or because their colleagues use texting to communicate, or because it’s just…there. And schools resist establishing phone-free environments because they know they’ll get push back from parents concerned about safety and communication needs.
You then put the onus of managing devices onto parents, without accepting or acknowledging how complicated these dynamics have become: screentime is not all created equal, and now, post-remote learning, schools have invested millions of dollars in your products that they cannot or will not walk away from.Even tech industry insiders, who are also parents, have told me that they’ve tried to solve this problem with technology, spending “hundreds of dollars on apps and controls” that don’t work, are impossible to manage or require a full-time job to stay on top of, or kids find the workarounds for anyway, rendering the “solutions” useless. And even when they’re successful at that, you’ve made it so that your in-app content cannot be monitored by parental controls or filters.
We don’t need “parental controls.” We need products designed with children’s best interests at heart. And we need to stop encouraging and incentivizing schools and families to provide them for their children.Add to this complexity child development: adolescence is normally a challenging time for parents and children, but you are there in the living room with us. You’re the third party to the conflicts, the stress, the fighting, the dopamine-induced meltdowns. But what you’ve created is so compelling, so persuasive, so alluring that adolescents withdraw even more, but not just to their rooms with the door closed: to the internet and all the dark corners it has to offer. Don’t tell me kids are mostly using digital tech for creative purposes. They’re not. Don’t tell me that social media provides social connections for children that outweigh the many, many harms documented by the paradoxical isolation they increase. Don’t tell me that app-based tools increase learning or curiosity more than a caring and inspiring teacher might. They don’t. Don’t tell me that parents “need to set limits.” We know this. And many of us are trying, but you keep putting irresistible products in front of our children, or peddling your wares to schools in the name of 21st century skills, or tell us our kids “need” them to be successful. Then you shame us when we fail. And we are failing.
Because this is not a fair fight. And you are responsible for starting it.I’m not going to end this letter by telling you what needs to be done. I don’t need to tell you. You already know.
You just have to choose to do it.
Guest post by Emily Cherkin
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