“Kids are born digital, they’re digital kids now. And, I think, it’s really important to set some hard rails around it,” declared Apple’s CEO, Tim Cooke, in an interview earlier this year with GQ. Cooke’s words highlight a common theme amongst those working for leading tech companies: they severely limit their children’s screen time. Bill Gates, the forefather of Microsoft; Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat; Tim Kendall, former executive at Facebook and former president of Pinterest, and Alex Roetter, former VP of Engineering at Twitter, all enforce screen time caps on their children. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, took this regulation to an extreme. He forbade his children from using any of the technology he created. The people developing these technologies do not want their children to have anything to do with them. Their restrictive stance reveals that there is a real danger in unlimited screen time.
Most of that danger stems from the algorithms being used. These algorithms have become such a problem that, just last month, a group of bipartisan attorney generals across 33 states joined forces to sue Meta. This is groundbreaking news as it’s very rare to see both a large number of states and members of different parties come together to fight a common battle. The group, made up of 42 attorney generals, is claiming that Meta is intentionally using manipulative algorithms to get young people addicted to their platforms. Further, they are accusing Meta of specifically designing their algorithms to ensnare children and teenagers in toxic rabbit holes of damaging content and of violating privacy laws protecting minors. One attorney general from Colorado even compared Meta’s schemes to those of tobacco and vape companies: “Just like Big Tobacco and vaping companies have done in years past, Meta chose to maximize its profits at the expense of public health, specifically harming the health of the youngest among us.”
The attorney general’s sentiment goes back to Cooke’s concept of “digital kids,” more commonly referred to as “iPad kids.” Entire generations are being weaned on technology. Kids do not go outside as often. One study found that 65 percent of parents played outside every day during their childhood while the same is true for only 30 percent of their children. Another study found that children who engage in excessive screen time are less imaginative, less empathic, and have shorter attention spans than those with limited screen time. The detrimental effects of a screen addiction can even impact development. Research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association of Pediatrics found developmental delays in fine motor skills, social skills, and language ability. These delays were attributed to just 4 hours of daily screen time; the average American child’s screen time is anywhere between 5 and 7 hours.
The glaring fact of the matter is that excessive screen time is perpetuated by unethical algorithms that are doing serious harm, especially to children. Engineers have a duty to create responsible applications that do not cause harm, but that is not what is happening. It speaks volumes that the creators of these applications do not allow their children to be exposed to them. So, until algorithms are more beneficent and less revenue-driven, it is important to limit children’s screen time. For toddlers (18 months to two years old), less than one hour of screen time is recommended. For those who are two to 17 years old, not exceeding two hours of screen time is recommended. To help save the next generation of iPad kids, it is important to set time limits, enforce boundaries, and put electronic devices away.