What is 'extremely online' and how is it affecting children in Silicon Valley?
There’s a new buzzword on the streets: "extremely online." It means someone is constantly on social media. Whilst spoken in jest, it cradles a dark nuance. People are increasingly becoming addicted to ‘bottomless bowl’ apps. That term was coined by former Google designer Tristan Harris after a Cornell study found that people drank more soup when a bowl was constantly refilled.
Many apps are designed to deliver a continuous stream of ‘bottomless bowl’ content. Each screen-tap or swipe provides a morsel of satisfaction.
News feeds keep people scrolling. Snapchat and Facebook ensures they check-in to check-out what friends are up to. Twitter provides a stream of endless schizoid and paranoid views. Hook-up sites like Grindr or Tinder deliver streams of non-starter, photo-finish relationships.
For a growing constituent, life staring at smart device screens is beginning to feel like wasted time. Many are putting themselves on digital detoxes. In practice, these range from taking a few months out from social media to having extended sabbaticals incorporating humanistic psychology techniques such as mindfulness.
Do as I say – not as I do
Many Silicon Valley-based adults involved in designing habit inducing ‘disruptive technology’ are witnessing first-hand, the time, money and effort that goes into making digital technology irresistible. In response, beyond work, they are reportedly limiting their kids’ browsing time. Rather than playing on their own smartphones, some kids are having to settle for supervised time using their parents’ devices.
A survey conducted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation found that despite confidence in technology's benefits, some parents are having serious concerns about tech's impact on children’s psychological and social development.
- Two out of three parents report that their child watches a TV show online at least a few times a week. 29% report their child watches every day
- Two out of three parents report that their child plays a game on a mobile device at least a few times a week. 26% say their child plays a game every day
Increased screen time leading to decreasing mental health
Tristan Harris a former design ethicist at Google, says apps can at best, lead some to a sense of mild disappointment with life; at worst, apps can contribute towards waning mental health.
Talking at a TED Conference, Harris explained how tech companies engineer apps to be seductive, apparently without regard for consequences.
For example, YouTube learns video topic preferences to tailor an endless stream of suggestions. It also incorporates autoplay, which queues up the next video while an existing current video is ending.
Viewers must resist binge-watching videos. That can be easier said than done. NYU psychologist Adam Alter explains that:
"There are very few examples of humans doing a good job exerting self-control for very long periods of time."
To reach the top, aim for the bottom
Harris points out how, under the banner of ‘best practice’, Silicon Valley employs plagiarism as an everyday way of conducting business: "If you're Netflix, you look at [YouTube] and say, well, that's shrinking my market share, so I'm going to autoplay the next episode. But then if you're Facebook, you say, that's shrinking all of my market share, so I have to autoplay all the videos in the newsfeed before waiting for you to click play."
Harris, believes evolving user experiences becomes a "race to the bottom of the brain stem" in which people's basest desires are exploited for web traffic. He takes issue with the existing system of notifications and alerts that induce feelings of reward, isolation, and social cohesion. "Imagine millions of people getting interrupted throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other - all designed by companies who profit from it. Welcome to social media."
Experts credit such strategies as contributing factors in the growing number of teen mental health issues. Research has found teenagers who frequently access social media face greater risks of depression and anxiety than those who spend time outdoors or with members of their community.
Minni Shahi works at Apple headquarters in Cupertino. Her husband, Vijay Koduri is a former Googler. They have two chidren, aged 10 and 12. "Tech companies know the sooner you get kids, adolescents, or teenagers used to your platform, the easier it is to become a lifelong habit," Koduri said. It's no coincidence, he explained, that Google has pushed Google Docs, Google Sheets, as well as the learning management suite, Google Classroom, into schools.
Catch ‘em young
Encouraging lifetime brand loyalty from childhood isn't new. It is estimated that major tobacco companies spend nearly $9 billion a year, or $24 million a day marketing products allegedly in the hope that the children will become lifelong users. The same brand loyalty approach has long been adopted by fast-food chains.
"The difference [with Google] is they don't think of themselves as dangerous," Koduri said. "Google thinks of themselves of 'Hey, we're the good guys. We're helping kids. We're helping classrooms.' And I'm sure Apple does as well, so too Microsoft."
Stopping in the footsteps of giants
Perhaps unbeknown to them, today’s new breed of Silicon Valley anti-tech parents are following in the footsteps of tech leaders including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Cook.
In 2007, when his daughter become fixated by a video game, Gates capped her screen time. Later it became family policy for family personal phones to be prohibited until the children turned 14.
In a 2011 New York Times interview Jobs, revealed he forbade his kids from using the newly-released iPad. Apple’s Tim Cook, said he doesn't allow his nephew to join online social networks. The comment followed those of other tech luminaries , who have condemned social media as detrimental to society.
One study often cited by psychologists was published in 2014. The study involved approximately 100 pre-teens. Half spent five days at a tech-free retreat engaged in activities such as hiking, archery, and orienteering. The other half remained at home. After five days at the retreat, researchers noticed considerable improvements in empathy levels. The teens scored higher in nonverbal emotional cues, more often smiling at another teen’s success, or looking distressed if they witnessed a bad fall. The researchers concluded: "The results of this study should introduce a much-needed societal conversation about the costs related to the enormous amount of time children spend with screens.
All of which may make a pleasant change to many of the current virtual chats being independently held at family dinners throughout Silicon Valley.