In 2014, when I started to write a book about the need to restrict the amount of time our kids spend on screens, the idea was not a popular one. The research I’d done persuaded me to set a tight policy for my own elementary-school children: No television or playing on tablets on weekdays. But I knew my family’s rules were considered draconian. And my plan to keep smartphones out of my kids’ hands until they were teenagers was practically bonkers.
But after a year like 2018, I’m feeling a lot less countercultural.
I trace the tech backlash of 2018 to the end of 2017 with the publication of Jean Twenge’s Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” It spread through the mommy blogosphere like wildfire. You could actually watch as the social media conversation moved from “iPads are just like comic books were 50 years ago” to “Wait, why are those suicide numbers so high?”
But an even broader culture shift began in April when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress. It seemed to finally dawn on our political leaders, and the mothers and fathers watching the hearings, that something was seriously amiss about the business plan — collecting and selling personal data about us and our children — of internet giants like Facebook.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Zuckerberg whether he would be comfortable telling the committee the name of the hotel he’d stayed at before the hearings, or if he would be comfortable sharing the names of the people he had messaged that week.
When Zuckerberg declined, Durbin followed up: “I think that may be what this is all about. Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy. And how much you” — he meant all of us — “give away in modern America in the name of, quote, connecting people around the world.”
The most obvious data point that “America Is Falling Out of Love With Silicon Valley,” as one Bloomberg headline put it, is probably the tumbling stock prices of tech companies. The big five — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google — lost about a trillion dollars in the fourth quarter. In October came another signal, the release of a study of 4,500 children ages 8 to 11 published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health medical journal, which found that limiting kids’ screen time was linked to better cognition.
Still, the cultural signs — not the economic and scientific ones — will make the biggest difference. Anyone paying even a little attention last year could have run into news about how tech executives themselves were working hard to keep their own kids off screens. An employee of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the nonprofit started by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to “leverage technology” for good — told the New York Times “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” The former editor of Wired compared screens to “crack cocaine.”
There’s even bipartisan agreement on the issue. According to an Axios survey, from November 2017 to November 2018, the portion of Democrats who believed social media was hurting democracy and free speech went from 37 percent to 48 percent, and the percentage of Republicans from 52 percent to 69 percent.
The consensus about kids and screens showed up in poll data too. A Pew Research Center survey from August found: 65 percent of parents say their kids spend too much time on devices. The kids agree — 54 percent of teens say they spend too much time on their cellphones, and 41 percent say they spend too much time on social media. And more than half of teens “associate the absence of their cellphone with at least one of these three emotions: loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious.”
All of this should make it easier for parents to take action, and I’ve seen signs that they have. The group Wait Until 8th, which advocates that parents put off giving their kids a smartphone until at least eighth grade, saw a big bump in the number of families who signed their pledge last year, from 10,000 to 17,000.
And yet, according to that Pew survey in August, even though parents see the dangers and more than half of teens say they have tried to reduce their screen time, only 57 percent of parents report setting any restrictions on their kids’ use of screens.
That number should rise. Parents who want to reduce their kids’ screen time now have the culture on their side when it comes to making the right call: less time with the phone or gaming system and more face-to-face interaction, more time outside, more physical activity, more family dinners, more book reading, more board games. The zeitgeist is shifting, take advantage of it.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying child welfare issues.