Digital Divides

I have low-tech kids. Now in early adolescence, they still play outdoors and hang out with real-life friends. They read a lot. They don’t have their own phones, and are skeptical of kids who are glued to their screens as soon as school gets out. I think my own screen use is pretty reasonable, too. But even when we think we have a good boundaries in place, tech can find new doorways into our family life.

A few years ago, my kids started playing a silly online game that involved completing tasks in a certain time. They wanted to log back in later, just for a minute, just to move their team along before the clock ran out. I thought I was being firm but kind when I said no, but if they really wanted a little help now and then, I could do it for them. Before I knew it, I was addicted to the game myself. I ducked in the middle of a family afternoon and played for a few minutes in the bathroom. I made in-app purchases for our team, something I swore the game would never trick me into doing. We ended up banning it from the house.

Similarly, we worked out limits for screens, but I didn’t think to monitor my children’s time spent listening to podcasts. Podcasts are totally harmless, right? Just listening to people talk, perhaps learning something? Not if your child finds a really long, engrossing story and decides to spend nearly every available free minute catching up on back episodes. By the time I caught on, this had become close to 20 hours a week. My kid had a half-time job as a podcast listener.

These were small hiccups that we corrected fairly quickly, but they give me a small window into the real dangers of tech overuse. Jean M. Twenge’s book iGen is a helpful study of the generation coming into college now, who grew up surrounded by tech gadgets and social media. The subtitle says it all: “Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”

I have the privilege of working at MIT and living among highly educated people, where I have ready access to both the current science about setting appropriate limits and a wealth of other experiences to enrich my children’s lives. As Nellie Bowles reported last month in The New York Times, higher income children spend nearly 30% less time on screens each day than lower income children, and white children are exposed to screens less than Latino and African American children. The more I learn about the links between anxiety and screen overuse, the more I worry not just for my family but for all our children.