A few months ago, I witnessed a 2-year-old child attempting to swipe up on a magazine, as if it were an iPad.
It was a harrowing sight. And it wasn’t just a swipe. All kinds of digital gestures that you and I unconsciously employ at the print of our thumbs — pulling out sidebars, double-tapping, zooming in and out — were tested. The toddler had absolutely no idea how to interact with print, no recognition that the interface in his grasp had physical pages instead of a pixel-filled screen and with every interaction that failed to produce a digital reaction, visibly grew more and more flustered.
The exposure to devices at such a young age and reliance on technology as a digital pacifier is completely undermining the cognitive and motor development of children. Rather than learning from smells, textures and physical movements, passively absorbing stimulation from bright lights is going as far as altering the structural integrity of white matter tracts in children’s brains, stunting their literacy, language functions and attention spans.
The worldwide web wasn’t intended for placating toddlers. Even social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, that bare it all adhere to a 13-years-old-and-up policy, albeit loosely. It’s only recently that technology has begun productizing features designed specifically for youth. The ephemerality of social networks, such as Snapchat, exploits the psychology of children, whose impatience is a market opportunity when photos and texts can be sent instantaneously with little accountability or thought. Some kids, categorized as “whales” by tech companies, are spending thousands of dollars on virtual currency through Apple’s app store.
More than 80% of children aged 6-12 surf YouTube daily, and in 2015, an entire new platform for kids emerged: YouTube Kids. And despite its claims of safety and privacy, malicious content still slips through the algorithmic cracks and corporate products are heavily advertised through influencer channels. Between YouTube Kids and newer platforms, like Disney+, ease of use — a single tap for autoplay — is optimizing children’s viewership online and is coloring entertainment as an indispensable part of the kids-as-digital-consumers vision.
The era of analog adolescence is over. For most.
Even when children aren’t old enough to share themselves, parents and teachers are “sharenting,” the practice of transmitting a child’s private details over digital channels. Digital identities are emerging the minute a child is born, distributed like currency and finally acquired by data brokers. Innocuous sharing without consent propels kids into digital captivity, robbing them of the right to opt out later in their lives when they can actually comprehend data privacy or even just read. And such sharenting precipitates nearly 70% of child identity-fraud cases.
Polar to the sharenters are Silicon Valley technologists who innovate products from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. only to later come home and enforce stringent screen-time limits for those very innovations, epitomizing the privilege of wariness toward tech’s pernicious effects on their children. Nanny contracts are becoming increasingly popular in the Bay Area, along with the Big Brother approach of prohibiting nannies from engaging with their phones or laptops entirely and publicly condemning them when in violation.
Just a couple of days ago, Apple released new parental controls. Steve Jobs of Apple and Evan Williams of Medium disallowed iPads for their children, Melinda and Bill Gates banned cell phones until their children were teenagers and Tim Cook of Apple refused to let his nephew join social networks.
Between the rich and the richer, the expulsion of technology is transcending from the margins of homes to educational institutions, like the sensationalized, no-tech, $24,400-a-year Waldorf school. Lower-income teenagers are spending more than eight hours a day on screens, while higher-income students spend under six. African American and Hispanic children are significantly more exposed to screens. With Google Chromebooks and hell, even iPads, costing less than high-quality, in-person instruction, the chasm of tech addiction has been likened to the new digital divide.
Tech’s differential impacts on children are augmented in a $3 billion industry: digital surveillance. Twenty-four-hour monitoring technologies flag emails, chats and documents for bullying, and violent tendencies with no proven benefit. While educational technology has sporadically personalized learning for students with disabilities and empowered teachers at their craft, companies capitalize on the inequitably and systematically underfunded schools that place a near-religious faith in their products.
And often I ponder if I might be a better engineer had I started “programming at the age of seven” or “built apps in middle school.” Perhaps I would have cultivated more friendships if I created a Facebook before my junior year of high school or had a smartphone before the eighth grade. But, I’m immensely grateful for my childhood of jigsaw puzzles, ad hoc arts and crafts projects, runs around parks and jam sessions with my boombox. I feel it’s harder to let your imagination roam free within the uninspiring confines of a 13-inch screen.
We need not wait for the day that our posterity, all at once, capsizes into a “Black Mirror” episode. We’re already living in one, and it’s on autoplay.
Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].