My sister Seeta Pai, who holds a doctoral degree from Harvard University in human development, has worked throughout her career to apply this science to the education of children. She currently works for the Boston affiliate of the US’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) on educational uses of media. Earlier, during another stint, she also worked to oversee the educational content in television shows such as Sesame Street (or Galli Galli Sim Sim here in India, which Seeta helped launch). In between, she also worked for some years for a non-profit media watchdog called Common Sense Media in San Francisco.

Common Sense claims to be the leading independent non-profit organization dedicated to helping children thrive in a world of media and technology. The organization says it empowers parents, teachers and policymakers by providing unbiased information, trusted advice and innovative tools to help them harness the power of media and technology as a positive force in all children’s lives.

Media and technology are at the very centre of all our lives today—especially our children’s. According to Common Sense, today’s children, at least in the US, have more than 50 hours of screen time every week. The organization believes that the media content children consume and create has a profound impact on their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. While learning how to use media and technology wisely is an essential skill for life and learning in the 21st century, Common Sense says that parents, teachers and policymakers struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing digital world in which our children live and learn. 

Most of us who aren’t millennials grew up in a world where our access to technology was limited, though I must admit we did have avenues to get addicted to non-technological dangers such as nicotine. The explosion of technology in the last couple of decades, as well as in the number of people coming online (like in India, where according to a somewhat condescending article in The Wall Street Journal the “good morning" WhatsApp messages sent by millions of newly online Indians are “clogging" up the internet) has led to a new source of addiction which we do not yet completely understand.

That said, there are plenty of attempts being made to categorize this new source of addiction, and books have been written about it, including one entitled Irresistible – The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. In an interview to NPR, Alter said: “Ten years ago, before the iPad and iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds." Now, he says, “research suggests that there has been a drop from 12 to 8 seconds—shorter than the attention span of the average goldfish, which is 9 seconds." Apart from my jaw dropping like a goldfish’s when I read this, I couldn’t help but question why Alter thinks we were only 3 seconds better than the average goldfish to start off with! But that is a philosophical question which is beyond the scope of today’s column.

While adults have resources such as Alter’s book to help them process through our new addiction, children are a different matter altogether. Most of today’s new parents are befuddled by how to channel their children’s attention away from technology when needed. In my own case, I have to sorrowfully admit that I was unable to divert my own children’s attention away from screens as much as I would have liked to. I would have been glad, when they were much younger, had there been guidelines established of the sort that Common Sense now espouses.

Seeta is luckier; her children are over a decade younger than mine, and she is an expert on the subject. She says that the balanced and guided use of technology can actually be beneficial for children’s learning. She thinks a nutritional analogy is apt. Just like you wouldn’t ban all food, you pay attention to your children’s media diet—its “nutritional" content, and how it matches your child’s needs. But she confirms that this can be hard for parents to do.

Technology giants like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg knew this; according to The New York Times, Jobs didn’t let his kids use the iPad, and strictly limited how much technology his kids used at home. In August 2017, after the birth of his second child, Zuckerberg posted an open letter to his newborn, urging her to make time to go outside and play. “You will be busy when you’re older, so I hope you take time to smell all the flowers and put all the leaves you want in your bucket now," he and his wife Priscilla Chan wrote.

Now, Common Sense and the Center for Humane Technology, an organization of technology industry insiders who want to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests", are working on a new campaign to protect young minds from the potential of digital manipulation and addiction. The campaign, which Common Sense says will reach 80 million of its users, is called Truth About Tech, and will put pressure on the technology industry to make its products less intrusive and less addictive. It wants to raise awareness among children, parents and educators about the dangers of technology, particularly the depressive behaviour that could result from excessive exposure to social media. The campaign also plans to enlist technologists from across the industry to “recognize their moral responsibility to use technology for the greater good", as opposed to potentially harming kids.

The Center for Humane Technology is spearheaded by prominent industry insiders concerned about technology companies’ willingness and ability to control the actions and attention of billions of people. These leaders include Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, and Roger McNamee, a former Facebook investor.

While I am not sure how well such attempts to self-govern work, it’s heartening to see that, at least, someone is trying.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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