To see a toddler or even a baby within reach of a live touch screen is to witness a little slave in the making. Digital devices seem to have a mesmerising power over young, developing minds that picture books and even television cartoons never had, and by the time they start school, many children are inseparable from their iPad. Would you like to introduce yourself to a six-year-old with a game on his tablet? Good luck with that.

Of course, kids have always been loath to leave their games, books and puzzles when politeness or duty called, but today’s digital entertainments have taken their absorption to a new and alarming level. Tech expert and dad Chris Anderson told New York Times writer Nellie Bowles recently: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

And, as more people like him are beginning to see and admit, the addiction effect is not accidental; the whole idea behind digital entertainment is to get kids (and adults) hooked. Tech firms hire psychologists for the purpose. Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and founder of GeekDad.com, adds:

“We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Oddly enough, word got around years ago that Steve Jobs would not let his own youngsters use iPads. Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers. Apple boss Tim Cook said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks.

However, it may have been a dramatic headline in The Atlantic last year that finally spurred middleclass parents into action. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” it asked, summarising an article by psychologist Jean Twenge in which she laid out her evidence for the malignant effects of the technology on Generation iPhone, or iGen.

A specialist in generational behaviour, Twenge found a startling correlation between the rise of the smartphone and the habits of younger millennials — those born between 1995 and 2012, whose older members were just entering their teens when the iPhone came on the market in 2007. She wrote:

“The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

“More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been,” she suggested. “Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

What Twenge was (and is) onto — apart from the actual content of messages (friendly or not) exchanged by phone – is the displacement of normal social activity by technology. This was strongly correlated, she found, with a decline in happiness among teens, leading to increased rates of depression and attempted suicide.

Persuasive design and children's brains

There is, naturally, scepticism about such alarms, but Twenge and the Silicon Valley whistle-blowers are not on their own. A group of US psychologists, the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, wrote to the American Psychological Society in August, asking the APA to speak out on “the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques [persuasive design] to hook children on social media and video games.”

Among other concerns (kids’ mental health struggles and poor academic performance) they quote Ramsay Brown, a neuroscientist and co-founder of the artificial intelligence/machine learning company Boundless Mind, who said in a recent Time article, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone… Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.” 

Judging by the New York Times dossier on the new anti-screen trend, it’s this effect on the brain that seems to be the main concern of elite parents. “I didn’t know what we were doing to their brains until I started to observe the symptoms and the consequences,” Chris Anderson told The Times.

He and his wife now have strict rules for their five kids. They include: no phones until the summer before high school, no screens in bedrooms, network level content blocking, no social media until age 13, no iPads at all and screen time schedules controlled from Anderson’s phone.

No-tech homes are cropping up across the region, and nannies are being asked to sign no-phone contracts. No-tech preschools are trending and parents are favouring private schools with minimal screen use for their junior and middle school children.

But not all parents are in the know. The poorest will be the last to hear that spending hours a day on video games and YouTube, or messaging on Instagram and Snapchat, could be trashing their children’s brains – not to speak of their character. Why should they worry when schools, encouraged by the tech giants like Apple and Google, are still rolling out screen learning for the youngest students. They say it’s about “the skills of the future”, not to mention building brand loyalty.

This adds up to an unexpected “digital divide,” where elites are protecting their kids from technology while downscale parents are still letting theirs use it for hours on end, perhaps because it seems to keep the youngsters out of trouble, and also because it seems a smart thing to do.

What takes the place of screens?

But what, one wonders, took the college educated, helicopter parents so long to tumble to this problem? While the tech industry was stealing their kids’ brains with the help of cynical psychologists, why couldn’t they see that the fascination itself – never mind the brain engineering — was risky, encroaching on if not displacing time for family, cultural and social activities?

As Jean Twenge noted in her Atlantic article: “One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were.”

She quoted her 13-year-old case study, Athena, who told her:

“I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. “They just say ‘Okay, okay, whatever’ while they’re on their phones. They don’t pay attention to their family.” Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

Is there, then, a more fundamental problem about contemporary family life underlying the technology issue? Concepts like “quality time” and “intensive parenting” that have been in vogue over the last decade show that educated parents take their responsibilities seriously, even if they have to outsource them to a nanny; but there’s still something missing. And it's not necessarily a whole lot more extra-curricular activities requiring a whole lot more chauffeuring.

Perhaps John Cuddeback, professor and chairman of philosophy at Christendom College, puts his finger on it in an essay at First Things titled “Reclaiming the Household.”

Although many people today are concerned about the decline of the family, he argues, even where all members of the family are present, something else is missing: the household. Whereas once “family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day,” people hardly even live in their homes any more.

“Mom and dad are at work. The kids are off to school. And when they return, it’s often with takeout food that gets eaten while each member of the family is looking at his own screen. The bustling little community that was the household—the context in which parents would raise their children to be responsible adults and citizens, even in seriously diseased polities—has practically ceased to exist.”

Families don’t do very much together, whether work or leisure, he points out. They share a home but not much of their lives:

“When we think of a family today, or even a home, we do not think of a real community characterized by substantial daily common action. Rather than a community woven together by common actions toward common ends, we have a kind of home base, a staging area in which to rest and refuel for remote daily activities.”

This makes a lot of sense. It's very easy to see how “screens” colonised this depleted version of family life and exacerbated it. It is also evident how difficult it would be to wean children off devices if there is little family life to attract them. A companion article to this one by Mary Cooney sketches one model of a “household” that has averted this dilemma, but there are others.

No doubt they exist in Silicon Valley as well as in Maryland. It would be good to hear from them how they handle a task that is bigger than controlling screen use – that is, building true family life — with something more important about children in view than their brains – namely, their hearts and souls.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet