The rise of Silicon Valley's screen abolitionists

girl on tablet
Public Domain MaxPixel

Many parents who work in the tech industry are opting to go screen-free at home.

When the people who invent a new technology do not let their own children use it, the rest of the world would be smart to pay attention. This irony is playing out right now in Silicon Valley, home to the world's most valuable and biggest tech companies, where growing numbers of families are opting to raise their children in screen-free environments.

It's almost as if they know something about smartphones and tablets that the rest of us don't – or perhaps we just don't want to acknowledge how inconvenient it is. In a fascinating article for the New York Times, Nellie Bowles describes several Silicon Valley parents' concerns about mixing screens and kids.

Athena Chavarria, employed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, condemns it outright: "I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children." Chavarria didn't let her kids have phones until high school and continues to ban their use completely in the car and severely limit it at home.

Perhaps most moving is what Chris Anderson, former editor at WIRED and current executive at a robotics company, had to say:

"On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it's closer to crack cocaine... Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve."

Anderson's words have an undertone of deep regret. He laments "lost years" with his children, before realizing he was witnessing "the chasm of addiction" and tried to pull them out.

"I didn't know what we were doing to their brains until I started to observe the symptoms and the consequences... We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand."

That's why some families are opting to go completely tech-free, rather than fight with kids over limited screen time, which makes the problem worse. It's not uncommon for nannies in the Silicon Valley area to be asked to sign 'no-phone use contracts,' stating that no screens will be used by the nanny in front of the child for any reason at all. In another article for the Times by Nellie Bowles, a San Jose-area nanny named Shannon Zimmerman is quoted:

"In the last year everything has changed. Parents are now much more aware of the tech they’re giving their kids. Now it’s like, 'Oh no, reel it back, reel it back.' Now the parents will say 'No screen time at all.'"

It's incredibly frightening to hear screens described in this way. Steve Jobs raised eyebrows by saying his kids weren't allowed to touch iPads, and now Apple's CEO Tim Cook said earlier this year that he won't let his nephew on social networks. When its own creators make the technology out to be so dark and insidiously addictive, it raises serious concerns for the children who are already hooked on it and hardly know another way of existing in the world. They appear to be victims in a mass experiment gone horribly wrong.

On a personal level, I feel somewhat vindicated. I pulled my kids out of an elementary school where the principal brushed off my concerns about the children watching YouTube videos for several of their school subjects (physical education, music, French, and science) and told me to "get with the times." Several years later, "the times," it would appear, are proving him wrong.

When it comes to kids and technology, I prefer to take a precautionary approach. I do not think there's enough evidence to support the benefits of screen time among children; in fact, evidence for the opposite is piling up. A 2017 book called Screen Schooled argues that "technology does far more harm than good, even when it's used to boost scores in reading and math" (via Business Insider). Whether beneficial or harmful, for me as a parent it comes down to the fact that I'd rather my kids do other things than hang out in front of screens, so they don't. We do not own a TV or an iPad and they cannot access my password-protected phone, which conveniently has no games on it.

I hope these Silicon Valley parents are trend-setters whose insider views influence others across the country, but it won't be easy. We're talking about a level of addiction that, as Anderson said, is difficult for parents to grasp. Still, he has witnessed firsthand how one can "descend into chaos and then pull back from it all." It's possible – and worth it – if you can weather the withdrawal.

The rise of Silicon Valley's screen abolitionists
Many parents who work in the tech industry are opting to go screen-free at home.

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