On December 9, 60 Minutes continued its longstanding practice of inciting moral panic about kids and screens.
It all started back in 1976, when the show’s reporters cautioned parents to watch out for a popular arcade game called Death Race. That game had graphics so crude, players probably would have needed an explanation to understand the story. Luckily, the newscasters at CBS were there to help. They described how running over pixelated “gremlins” with an 8-bit avatar that kind of (maybe, sort of, perhaps) resembles an automobile, would surely inspire some players to jump into their real cars and crash into random pedestrians.
At the time, researchers at the National Safety Council called Death Race “insidious,” “morbid” and “gross.” And they sounded very much like today’s anti-screen curmudgeons when they complained that the game captures players’ attention “through loud sound, the need for rapid decision-making and immediate feedback of results.” Not much has changed.
On Sunday, December 9, Anderson Cooper continued the tradition. He interviewed former Google manager Tristan Harris, who said, “this is about the war for attention and where that’s taking society.” Harris decried the dangers of “persuasive design,” and evoked the image of “a thousand engineers” on the other side of the screen. Like mad-scientists, they’re trying to corrupt your children. Watch out!
The devil is in our smartphones. And if you believe the heavily biased reporting at 60 Minutes, researchers have already discovered serious cause for concern. Alternatively, if you just listen to what the scientists are saying, you’ll realize the evidence against screens doesn’t really exist.
For example, using MRI brain scans, Gaya Dowling, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, discovered that kids who engage in digital play for more than seven hours a day have thinning cortexes. “That’s typically thought to be a maturational process,” Dowling told the 60 Minutes audience. “So, what we would expect to see later is happening a bit earlier.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought brain maturation was a good thing. But apparently, it’s not so simple. We need a lot more data before we can jump to conclusions. “We don’t know yet if it’s being caused by the screen time,” said Dowling, struggling to meet Cooper’s leading questions with scientifically objective responses. “We don’t know yet if it’s a bad thing.”
So, what do we know that warrants so much fear mongering? Very little. As Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, told Cooper, “we’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children.”
I guess it’s true that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail because, apparently, what I call “childhood,” a research scientist called an “uncontrolled experiment.” His logic confused me. After all, doesn’t every generation face changing contexts, new ideas and disruptive technologies? Does Christakis consider the Enlightenment to be an uncontrolled experiment? How about the Industrial Revolution? Could anyone have predicted how literacy would impact the masses? No. But plenty of people were worried about it, because humanity has never been certain about its future. We’ve never been able control this so-called experiment.
Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, said this time is different, it’s “much more sudden and pronounced” than previous generational shifts. Throughout the 60 Minutes story, Twenge was pictured scrolling through data on her laptop, kids playing on the playground behind her. And it makes you wonder whether she’s really studying the kids or just the demographic statistics.
That’s really the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Even fine researchers have started to see the world from the same perspective as Harris’ army of “a thousand engineers”—the folks who meticulously comb through data in order to manage behavioral outcomes. But parents know that kids are more than just data points. And well-being involves much more complexity than our metrics can currently quantify. Therefore, we’d do well to supplement the current research with a more philosophical, or psychoanalytic, approach to screens.
We should recognize that childhood never exists in a vacuum. There is no standard, neutral version of the perfect developmental experience. Instead, kids always grow up in context, playing in ways that prepare them to participate in economies, to live productive and fulfilled lives within a specific set of cultural mores, to construct meaningful identity narratives using the tools of the time.
Remember that those classic wooden toys, which we now exalt, are a relatively recent addition to the childhood experience. They grew out of Friedrich Fröbel’s 19th century kindergarten movement. Likewise, board games and stuffed animals are a product of the Industrial Age. These objects taught kids to see themselves in ways that aligned with the zeitgeist of a particular time and place.
That time and place has already changed. We are currently living in a connected world; the spirit of information networks contours our everyday experiences. We use the language of digital technology as a metaphor for human consciousness: you are “hardwired” for empathetic connection. But for some reason, we’re conflicted about letting our kids move into the reality that we have already collectively fashioned.
Therefore, we’re failing our children by trying so hard to protect them from an uncertain future. They don’t need us to be the gatekeepers of progress. That’s not a parent’s job. It never has been. Instead, we urgently need to teach our kids how to apply the old human values—kindness, compassion, ethics, and etiquette—within new technological contexts.