Technology And the Death of Personal Responsibility
If your child wasn’t eating her vegetables, I doubt you’d invite a farmer to dinner to coax her to eat more broccoli. You wouldn’t ask a Honda rep to ride shotgun so your teenager would drive the speed limit.
So it’s curious that some are calling on Apple to help parents with another aspect of child health and safety. In an open letter to Apple's Board of Directors, investors want the company to help reduce screen time for children,
An article in The Guardian sums up the gist of their plea: “The investors cited several studies on the negative effects on children’s mental and physical health caused by heavy usage of smartphones and social media. These range from distractions in the classroom and issues around focus on educational tasks to higher risks of suicide and depression.”
As a remedy, the investors urge Apple “to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.”
One of their suggestions: “The initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.”
If I could channel Dr. Spock for a moment, we could avoid – or at least reduce – this problem if parents didn’t casually hand out these digital pacifiers without considering the consequences. We’ve all witnessed families at restaurants, the child occupied with an iPad and a plate of mac n cheese while the parents spend quality time together. That’s the source of technology’s negative effects on young people. Apple can give parents all the controls they want, but children will still be affected by staring at screens when mom and dad outsource their responsibilities.
Strangely, the investors do acknowledge that “parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children”, yet the letter goes on to say that “it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.”
What does Apple’s “business strategy” have to do with eradicating a major health crisis in children? You either want to curb a dangerous societal behavior because it’s the right thing to do, or you’re doing so as a means to an end – the end being more sales and lifelong Apple devotees.
Besides, even if Apple legitimately shared responsibility to shield children from overuse of digital devices and social media, they would logically bear the same accountability for adults.
After all, scores of people from age 18-80 have become addicted to their devices as well, leading to their own constant state of distraction and damage to their emotional, physical, and social well being. If Apple will help children to avoid digital addiction, I propose they open digital rehab clinics for adults within their retail stores.
That will never happen, of course, because Apple doesn’t make amazing products out of the kindness of their heart. Their priority is to increase profits year after year. They're a business, not a philanthropic organization. To expect them – to demand them – to be an ethical guiding light is not only shirking individual responsibility, it borders on parental negligence.
If you’re of a certain age you may recall when drunk driving first became part of the national conversation. For decades it was perfectly acceptable to get behind the wheel after rounds of cocktails at a dinner party, with the host handing you another scotch on the rocks for the road. No one questioned the behavior: Fender-benders, uprooted trees, 8-car pile ups, all four passengers dead. Oh well. People drink, stuff happens.
I remember going out with friends in high school, getting smashed and hauling down the Pacific Coast Highway without a care in the world. Whichever guy drove to the party also drove us away from the party.
The tide turned with Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, public awareness campaigns, and appeals from teachers. People started to pay attention. We started thinking about the concept of the “designated driver.” Not because Budweiser created teenage-proof bottles. The message was instilled by tireless activists, loving parents, and increasingly mature friends, not a corporation with questionable motives.
To ask corporations to raise children is what happens when we rely on technology for making decisions. Nowadays, many people can’t seem to decide where to eat without first consulting Yelp’s army of reviewers. And what if GPS fails? Will highways and boulevards be strewn with confused drivers going in circles, wondering how they’ll get home?
But technology really isn’t the problem. We have a collective failure of critical thinking skills. Just look at the blame placed on Facebook for the proliferation of “fake news.” Where is it written in Facebook’s user agreement that you will be hermetically protected from untruth? Yet according to some critics and politicians, the social media giant must develop better policies and tools to reduce hoaxes. Based on that line of argument, the moment we sign up for Facebook, we absolve ourselves of responsibility to use our brains.
Since the dawn of civilization, people have grappled for the best ways to promote healthy behavior in the public interest. We come up with policies, legislation, sanctions, regulations, taxes, subsidies, advertising, public services, governmental-sponsored or mandated social programs, moral codes, and holy books dictated by gods.
In the case of protecting children from the ills of their devices, maybe there’s a simpler way. Recently, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said he stopped using social media because it was “eroding the core foundations of how people behave”. His solution: “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.”
That language may not be suitable for your kids, but it is a strategy to consider.