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Let's Talk About Your Child's Technology Health

Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma can be a helpful parenting resource.

We often think about technology as something useful and helpful. Our GPS helps guide us, Instagram helps keep us connected with our friends and family. In the 1990s; however, Stanford graduate student BJ Fogg began to show us the negative side of technology. Coining the term “persuasive technology,” Fogg revealed that many technologies, including apps and websites, are built to influence your behavior not through coercion, but through subtler tricks such as algorithms. Technology is now able to pick up your interests and send you curated ads targeting those interests while tracking things from your spending habits to who you follow on social media.

Recently, I watched a popular new documentary, The Social Dilemma. I am so excited that the information conveyed in the documentary — the persuasive and harmful effects of technology — is being uncovered for the world to see. Technology addiction is a real thing and demands our attention.

For years, I have been educating parents, teens, and children about how addictive video games, social media, and streaming platforms are for our youth. The ease with which our kids can spend hours on games like Fortnite cannot be compared to older generation video games such as PacMan. I have conducted thousands of interviews with children, teens, parents, teachers, to learn about children’s spending habits on our electronic devices, I have witnessed firsthand that youth, especially teens, are in grave danger physically, mentally, and socially from persuasive technology.

We have all heard the stories of how social media negatively affects youth’s self-esteem. Endless scrolling and vicious cyber comments are to be expected these days. Before COVID-19 locked us in our homes, I noticed a trend with several of the middle-school girls I worked with — they were cutting off their own hair. On one particular day, after the third teen entered my office styling a new (uneven) haircut, I asked: “Is there a ‘cut your own hair challenge’ happening on social media?” “Yes!” she exclaimed. While hair cutting is, for the most part, a harmless trend, I wonder: to what extent will social media convince our kids to do something? What if it is not as benign — such as encouraging self-harming behavior?

In my experience speaking to teenage boys, (many are too uncomfortable to make eye contact with me and whisper to me, looking down), they think there is something wrong with them. Upon further discussion, I learned of their fear that they were “addicted” to watching porn. They feared that consuming graphic and even violent porn videos may have affected their relationships with sexual partners. The “trend” is no longer benign. A click onto one video or one post may lead our children down a spiral of unstoppable consumption with unintended consequences.

The Social Dilemma hopefully helps audiences understand that there is tremendous thought and manipulation that goes into what seems like an innocent click or like. For example, have you noticed that you may have browsed a product once and suddenly you’re getting so many ads for it on every website you browse? Do you have a mountain of empty shopping boxes in your foyer? Have you ever asked yourself not only if you really need all that stuff, but what makes it so easy for you to buy all that stuff? There’s a lot of work that goes into designing shopping behaviors — to create this endless cycle of buying. This mindlessly addictive behavior is similar to how the games and social media platforms are being designed. Some of the greatest minds in technology work on methods to lure children not only to play a game but to spend endless money and time in the game. Your child is being pursued by big corporations with little or no interest in their mental and physical well-being.

While the addictive qualities of technology are hard to avoid, my advice is simple. Start with educating yourself and then your children. Learn about the flip side of technology, by engaging resources like The Social Dilemma. Pay attention to how your kids are reacting and responding to different apps and games. Ask them why they choose to do things, such as cutting their hair by themselves: Is it for a trend? What purpose does this serve?

The most common complaint that I receive from parents: their teen spends 95 percent of their time in their bedroom. When I ask kids why they spend so much time in their rooms, these are the most common responses:

I like it there. No one bothers me. I like my privacy.

● I have everything I need: my computer, phone, food. Why should I leave?

● I don’t like my parents nagging me.

● My parents are on their devices outside of my room too, so why should I leave?

● I play video games with my friends; it’s social.
A majority of the answers I receive indicate that our kids are withdrawing from the physical world more and more to spend time in a digital one. It is no coincidence that I have witnessed firsthand the decline in teen mental health as phone and device usage continues to increase. More than ever, kids are withdrawn from friends, anxious, depressed, and have disruptive eating and sleeping behaviors and lower grades.

Technology has become a tool of manipulation, control over our children. As parents, we need to watch out for them and help create a balance in their lives between the virtual and real world. When your child is spending all this time on their device, they aren’t using the creative part of their brain, they aren’t being in nature, and they aren’t making authentic interpersonal relationships. Many kids even forgo personal responsibility, often forgetting hygiene is an issue, and skipping their chores.

In viewing our relationship with technology, we must remember: if you are not paying for the article you are reading, the video you are viewing, the music you are hearing—then you are the product. We don’t want our kids to be consumers, but we should even more so protect them from becoming products.

This is a wake-up call to you and your children’s relationship with technology. How much of your life are you willing to give to social media? How about your children’s lives?