Big Tech and the devices and apps it produces consume the world’s collective attention in pursuit of profit. Tech giants need to find a better purpose if they are going to retain society’s permission to dominate our lives in the way they currently do. Society is distracted, our attention neurologically hijacked by a tsunami of weapons of mass distraction that focus our attention not on what we want but on what Big Tech wants us to want. For generations Z and Alpha, in particular, this is profoundly life-shaping.
Most parents are worried about their children spending too much time on screens. But it isn’t about screen time — it is what they are doing on screen that matters. All screen time is not equal: Education and entertainment time may be better than gaming and scrolling through social media. All users are not equal, particularly the young and vulnerable: Over the decade that technology has become ubiquitous in our lives, rates of adolescent sleep loss, loneliness, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide have increased by a factor.
Monetizing Children’s Brains Means the End of Our Species
Causality is not proven, but can the conflation of the two be a coincidence? Other societal factors have a significant influence for sure, such as the differing ways youngsters meet and the types of encounters — not relationships — they have, the decline of the nuclear family, religion, marriage, communal eating, the changing nature of the workplace all have some impacts.
But with babies and toddlers now regularly watching screens, nearly half of under-eights having their own tablet and most kids having a smartphone in their early teens, with all the access to age-inappropriate content this brings, the erosion of childhood and innocence happens earlier and earlier in a child’s personality development. According to therapists, addiction to porn and gaming is at worrying levels. As technology seeks to turn children into professional multitaskers, grazing like digital bees on multiple informational honeypots, the march of the robots and artificial intelligence proceeds apace. Are we teaching the future generations the inability to deep-read, deep-attend, deep-watch and focus just at the moment when the only work left for them will require precisely these skills?
Parents have looked the other way, enjoying the freedom from having to parent as their children have taken to electronic devices like ducks to water. They have missed the predator in the home as their children have done something infinitely more dangerous than leaving the house to play without a friend, foraging onto the internet from the apparent safety of their bedrooms. Educators have missed the opportunity to teach children to be digital citizens through responsible internet use, partly because they don’t understand the dangers or know how to.
Software designers have missed an opportunity to build in safety in their quest to satisfy the surveillance-as-a-service mandate of those who commission their products. Big Tech itself, caught in the quarterly earnings race, coffers and market caps bolstered by even higher demand during COVID-19, has gone further into denial about the need to reform its business models. Government has failed to protect the people, with techs giants growing ever bigger without the anti-trust interventions and content moderation that traditional media experienced in their equivalent growth period.
Society is delivering its youth not only a digital overload, but a hand of cards that includes parents still suffering from the overhang of the global financial crisis, a continuing global war on terror, a damaged planet and now enormous COVID-19 debt. The good news is that Gen Z is growing up with a strong sense of social purpose, believing corporations should serve society, not just their shareholders, and may yet reset the relationship between technology and society.
Late last year, US attorney general sent a draft law to Congress that would strike at the heart of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the shield tech companies currently have against potential liability for user-generated content, whether it be fake, damaging to youngsters or simply vile beyond a socially acceptable level. The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to put power back into the people’s hands and take it away from a few individuals running a small number of enormous corporations and the opaque algorithms running through the core of their systems. History will judge whether society woke up to this distraction crisis in time before the Internet of Things hammered the final nail in the coffin.