By Eva Tsai
I love the tech industry, full of innovation and optimism. It’s where I have spent my entire career. Nothing is impossible. We are charged to lead the masses to the digital world that people would not want to live without. Such premises produced many iconic tech wonders: social media for connections, iPhone for computing at your fingertips, and internet search to instantaneously access the vast wealth of knowledge.
All those wonders are fine and dainty, except when it comes to how they are used by our kids, often causing more harm than good. In its quest for revenue growth, the tech industry pays little attention to kids, as they are not primary spend decision-makers. I, for one, did not think about the influence of tech from the perspectives of a parent until I became one.
My kids got exposed to iPhones early, by playing with the old models that we retired. As a toddler, my older daughter learned English alphabets on her own from an iPhone app, much to our surprise. At that tender age, she was mesmerized by simple apps that would echo her facial expressions, repeat her words and read children’s stories to her. Back then, we considered the iPhone an educational toy and doled out iPhone playtime as a reward, once in a while.
Things were good for a few years until she discovered the wild world of YouTube.
I was shocked the first time I caught her in the wee hours with an iPhone watching YouTube. She was supposed to be in bed, asleep, not on YouTube. But the allure of it was too addictive. After she woke up in the middle of the night for a potty break, she could not resist taking advantage of unfettered access to YouTube while we were asleep. One video led to another, thanks to its predictive algorithm. Soon, she would be watching tens of videos on who knew what.
It should not have surprised me how additive YouTube and its powerful algorithm would be. After all, I have spent a good chunk of my career focusing on analyzing insights from user data to predict needs and further engagements. The success of any tech product has always been measured by its stickiness. We do not want our users to leave our product, period. But at no time did we realize that, one day, those users might be our children. Their immature brains and control mechanisms do not stand a chance against the sophisticated algorithm we designed specifically to hook users.
The additive algorithm is used by YouTube and all social media companies—Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. The more users they attract and the more engagements they have, the more advertising revenue they make. It’s a so-called monetization strategy. The strategy, however, comes with a social cost.
Studies after studies report that social media use is linked to anxiety and depression among teens. According to a 2019 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average American teenager spends close to seven hours a day on screen media pre-pandemic, much higher than the recommended two-hour limit. Sadly, children’s screen time has surged up by 60% during the pandemic, as we increased our reliance on digital tools during lockdowns and school closures.
Tech veterans such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs understood how addictive and harmful tech could be and limited technology use by their kids at home. When asked about his kids’ usage of iPad in an interview, Steve Jobs revealed, “Actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect.”
Although the correlation between mental health and screen time has been reported, it continues to receive little attention in tech companies. The lack of attention is evident in their mission statements.
I dug up the mission statement of Facebook, the biggest social media company. Over the years, its statement has changed, from “making the world more open and connected” in 2009 to “bringing the world closer together” in 2021. The statement is representative of the ethos held by the tech industry generally and social media companies especially: the quixotic belief that tech innovation is for the betterment of society. Yet, from the parents’ perspectives, hidden dangers abound when our kids’ childhoodS are more connected with everything out there in the world, exposing their susceptible minds to harmful content such as drugs, pornography, violence, and terrorism.
I know too intimately how such mission statements come about, having created a few myself. The process starts with ideation to spell out the different types of users the company targets and what those users will use the tech for. The words are then finessed into a statement to inspire and entice the targeted users to use the tech. Again, the more users and engagements the company has, the more money it makes. The path to money is paved with simplistic formula and brouhaha, with little regard for the unintended adverse effects on our younglings.
After seeing how my kids got lost in the YouTube world, I reversed my iPhone policy for them. I don’t view the iPhone as an educational device anymore. It is an addictive device that might suck them into the digital abyss, left unmoderated. I took away their iPhones and have no intention of returning them anytime soon.
The pandemic has posed challenges on limiting tech at home. In many parts of the country, distance learning was and still is the only path to education. While I am thankful for the innovation, I sigh at the increased reliance on tech and screen time. As vaccinations start to bring Covid to heel and schools open up, I am looking forward to returning to normal and again limiting my children’s use of tech. No social media until they come of age. Computer time is limited. Email communications and browsing contents are monitored.
At times, I feel that I am swimming against the current, given our society’s eager march towards digitization that has been further accelerated by the pandemic. However, as a tech insider, I know how tech is made and that is is not made for kids. Our kids stand little chance of disentangling themselves from addictive tech, which often leads to mental health issues and exposure to widely unregulated online content. The battle to limit tech for our kids for their own sake, unfortunately, is left to us parents.
Eva Tsai is a Google executive, startup board director, and investor. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and a pug. Follow her on Twitter at @etsai97.
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