In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, businessman and author Tony Schwartz offered an honest yet troubling account of what he calls his “addiction” to technology.
The medical and research fields have not yet come to a clear consensus on what constitutes technology “addiction” and which factors distinguish a true technology addiction disorder from problematic use or just bad habits. But the behavior Schwartz describes is remarkably familiar to those of us who are on our devices more than we know we ought to be.
It is important to reflect on how our human connections are being altered by our technological connections. The truth is, we simply don’t know enough about how the frequency or quality of our technology use is changing basic human interactions and behaviors.
What we do know is that like us adults, our kids are spending more time than ever with their screens. The Common Sense Census, released earlier this year, sheds light on what kids age 8–18 are doing with entertainment media every day. Given the amount of time kids are spending — six hours a day for tweens and nine for teens — it certainly does matter.
Think about the fact that Schwartz, a smart adult and successful businessman, acknowledged his problem yet still struggled to kick the habit of looking at his device constantly. How can we possibly expect kids and teens to take it upon themselves to manage their digital behavior when adults can’t do it?
Our world is changing, and kids are spending a lot of time with media — and they’re doing it in a variety of ways and on many platforms. Media use can be beneficial for our kids, from them using educational apps and websites to creating their own content — and they should also enjoy media use for entertainment! But we must know how and when to create limits for ourselves.
As parents, we want to find ways to use media to support healthy development, learning, and community building. But we can’t begin to make sense of what these technological changes mean for kids until we understand what’s being used and for how long and how kids feel about technology and media. From there, we must delve deeper to understand how our technology is changing the way we live.
As we embrace exciting new technological innovations, it is important to articulate the need for balance in our media and technology use and to promote the new research so that we can all make informed decisions, both for ourselves and for our children.
We need to develop a better collective understanding of how our new technology habits are changing our behavior. Increased government or foundation-supported funding is needed for research into important questions such as: What is the impact of technology use on empathy? How can we develop strategies to minimize the cognitive costs associated with multitasking? How does media use affect our face-to-face communication?
We’re in the middle of a huge unplanned experiment right now, one that many of us may not fully realize is happening. It would benefit us all to have research to separate facts from fiction when it comes to problematic technology use and to find ways in which technologies could better support our human connectedness rather than replace it.