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Thoughts on Screens and the Internet

I am no expert on technology, the internet, social media, or the use of screens. I have a phone. I also have a 12-year-old daughter who does not have a phone. I am trying to figure all this stuff out. I have no answers. 

What I try to do, in navigating technology, particularly regarding parenting, is parse out the rational fears from the irrational ones. I believe both occur. One person whose ideas I find grounding is Neil Postman. He didn’t live to see the internet in all its glory, but had a lot to say about the effect of technology. One of his main principles of technology states that with every advantage a technology offers, there comes a disadvantage. The benefit may outweigh the cost in some cases, but the reverse may be true in others. I think the key here is to not fall into the trap of being blinded by the innovation and assuming the benefit is worth it. And to really be honest about what we might be giving up or giving in to.

As the father of a preteen, and someone who works with teenagers, I am keenly aware of the allure of screens and all they offer. I think it’s easy to lump the internet, video games, social media into all one thing and judge it good or bad. As Kenneth Goldsmith puts it in his article, Go Ahead: Waste Time on the Internet, “The internet is not a monolith. In reality it’s a befuddling mix of the stupid and the sublime, a shattered, contradictory, and fragmented medium.” It can offer connection to a community that would otherwise be inaccessible. It can be an energizing force in a person’s creative life or civic engagement. It may also be a haven for meanness, violence and bigotry. I think what’s so maddening for me as a parent is that it all happens under one roof.  

While some parents rail against video games, they don’t scare me so much. The thing I am trying to come to terms with is the role of social media in our and our children’s lives. In reading a variety of articles two things seems undeniable:

Social media is used to influence us. For this, I recommend reading or watching interviews with Jaron Lanier. A Silicon Valley guy himself, he breaks down the way your phone is watching you through social media. It’s pretty simple. All those clicks and likes go somewhere. Each is a little bit of data that captures a tiny part of your behavior. Companies like Facebook and other apps sell that information to third parties who then want to target you in specific ways. We might think it’s innocuous — it may be — but Lanier describes it pretty bluntly as behavior modification. Advertisers can receive immediate feedback on the success of their strategies and influence you to buy their stuff. This might not seem that bad, but there are also more nefarious uses of your data, like trying to get you to vote a particular way….

Some social media is designed to be addictive. At this point, this is almost common knowledge. And for this you can check out Tristan Harris, who also was a tech industry person who has made a point of breaking down the most insidious tactics of tech companies. The metaphor he uses that I find the most compelling is that our phones are slot machines in our pockets. Using the very same algorithms and psychology as slot machines, apps are designed to deliver intermittent variable rewards to keep us coming back. Each time we scroll, check our phones (the average being 150 times a day) there is the possibility of the reward of a like, comment, retweet, etc. It’s almost a little unfair. One point that Harris likes to make is that behaving in a particular way as a result of technology is not necessarily bad, but it’s problematic when that behavior is done unconsciously.

What’s a Parent to Do?

On the one hand I want to keep my child as far from technology as possible to avoid those pitfalls altogether. I also recognize that regardless of age or upbringing, we all must at some point engage with technology. At some point, we must reckon with our relationship with technology. Living in a log cabin is one option. Accepting that this is just the “way it is” and giving in to the current state of things is another. But I’d like to take an approach that cuts a reasonable middle ground. Here are a couple things I like to say to my own child, as well as the members of our learning cooperative when talking about screen time, technology and social media. 

Consumption and Creation. I don’t think there’s really any problem with consuming from the internet. But there are good and bad sources for this. And of course, consumption of material is a significant aspect of learning. In order to know a particular medium like Instagram or YouTube well enough to produce your own, you’ve got to consume a fair amount of it. You’ve got to learn the language of that medium. 

But I would also ask kids to compare the amount of time they are consuming to the amount of time they are creating. Again, consumption is important. But one of the defenses for the internet is that it is a tool of our culture and people can use it for all kinds of things. But often, the internet and social media is a tool for a company to deliver things for you to consume. We often don’t really use it for anything other than being told what to do.

Conscious vs. Unconscious. Ultimately, the thing I’m interested in is freedom. The internet can help to free people from all kinds of things, to connect people and help them live the lives they want. But knowing that media is deliberately used to influence our behavior and crafted to be addictive, I worry that our relationship with it has become unconscious. I pull out my phone to check the weather, and with one notification, I spiral into a 20 minutes of meandering from app to app. I didn’t consciously choose to look at all that stuff, I just sort of got sucked in.

Back in the days before binge-watching, my wife and I put a little rule in place for ourselves for television watching. We would know and even say out loud, before we turned on the TV, what we were going to watch. We’d watch only that show and then turn it off. This rule of course didn’t always work. Sometimes we turned it on without thinking. Sometimes we watched well beyond the show we intended to watch. The point is that we tried to make our interaction with media intentional or conscious. I want to talk to kids about how much of their time on screens is a choice or the result of autoplay or the bottomless feed of an app or the need to check notifications? How often do they blink and realize they’ve been on a screen for a half hour or hour? 

Model the behavior we want to see. This probably is obvious, but not the easiest to put into action. I have had many conversations with adults who lament the fact that their kids are addicted to screens, but they themselves can’t tear themselves away from Facebook or their newsfeed. And maybe as non-natives of technology, parents have a harder time folding it into our lives than the way our kids do. But there are no good excuses. If we want our children to develop healthy practices with technology we must develop those practices ourselves. 

One of the things I like to say to my daughter regarding parenting in general is that it’s my first time doing this. That I don’t have some other daughters that I’ve been able to practice with. The decisions I’m making are my best effort. There is some scary stuff out there in real life, as well as on a screen. But there’s also some really exciting, inspiring, stuff that can bring people together. We shouldn’t dismiss it all, but work with ourselves and our kids to find the good stuff and to encourage good habits. With a little attention and effort, we can find a reasonable balance of technology in our lives.

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