In 1908, in Detroit, cars were seen as a vexing problem. That summer, 31 people were reported to have been injured or killed after being hit by a car, or after a car accident. Many more deaths were not even reported. In those days there was little understanding of speed, and people trusted horses to keep them safe more than they trusted a man behind the wheel of a car. As the Detroit News reported in a retrospective 2015 article, the nation, then, was in the throes of a chaotic and menacing problem: inexperienced drivers, and the absence of guidelines on how to navigate this new world. The chaos of the day required new thinking to manage this new technology, and Detroiters came up with stop signs, traffic lights, and lane lines, to bring order and safety to this new invention that terrified the masses.
Cars changed our way of life before we fully comprehended their advantages — and their problems. Eventually, we figured out how to manage traffic, and created laws to enforce speed, and to protect pedestrians and other drivers. Over time, we built safer cars, and made it a law to wear seat belts. And while too many people are still killed in car accidents, driving is safer than ever.
We are now experiencing our own “1908.” The Internet, followed by social media, exploded onto the scene, changing society, and how we interact with one another in innumerable ways. Most of us were enamored by being able to connect with people all over the world, to “surf the web,” and to buy almost anything we wanted from the comfort of our sofas.
And, like television before it, computers and the Internet were also embraced as tools that would revolutionize schools, and improve education. There is still talk in some circles that online learning will effectively replace teachers. But just like television did not supplant teachers, neither will the Internet.
In truth, the shine has worn off of the Web, and reality has set in – the internet and social media are deeply flawed, and potentially dangerous. Countless articles outline the ills of social media, and how poorly and ineffectively technology is used in many schools. Every article draws the same conclusion: We are like slaves to our personal devices, by design, as the result of how Apple, Facebook, Google, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram work. Snapstreaks, for example, hook our kids into sending messages back and forth to their contacts every day. Youtube auto play captures our kids’ attention with video after video for hours each day. The big players in this space have a lot to gain by keeping us attached to our devices – the more traffic, the more advertising revenue. As Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, and founder of Time Well Spent says, “This technology steers what two billion people are thinking and believing every day.”
The losses of time, and of meaningful engagement between family members, are obvious, and have real, dire implications for users; in addition to the addictive power of the Internet, reports indicate a connection between excessive use of social media and depression. The Child Mind Institute reports that an eighth grader’s risk for depression jumps 27 percent when he frequently uses social media. Other reports time the spike in teen depression to the launching of the iPhone.
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle reports that many people who work in Silicon Valley, who know the risks of too much technology and social media, limit their use for their own children. In addition, many send their children to schools that have limited or no technology at all.
The truth is, while social media connects us to more people more frequently, the connections are often shallow, and lack meaning or substance. Teens today are less likely to go out to socialize in person with other people, so in the end, they are actually more isolated, and feel loneliness more deeply.
My son Yoni, who happens to work at Google, recalls that when he was in middle school, if there was a party over a weekend that he wasn’t invited to, he wouldn’t even know about it until Monday, and the hurt would be transitory. Now kids find out in real time about their exclusion, and can experience it relentlessly through social media as the party is taking place – exacerbating the feeling of loneliness and isolation. Cyber-bullying is another byproduct of the Internet.
Now that we know the pitfalls of the Internet and social media, we need a remedy. Fortunately, I am an optimist. Like all the other “new and great” life-changing inventions that came before us, I believe that we will make the necessary course corrections to diminish the dangers of technology, and to leverage its positive, transformative powers. We all have a role to play. I believe that the large tech companies have an ethical responsibility to manage their bottom line while placing more focus on what is better for humanity. Parents must monitor their children much more closely, and delay giving them access to personal devices and social media. The average age of a child receiving a first device is now 10. This is too young to use it responsibly.
Teaching responsible use of technology in schools that deploy it as a learning tool must also be a high priority, as it is at Hillel. This includes helping students to manage the amount of time they spend using technology, and how to use it ethically, legally and safely. Schools also have to invest more time using the technology for deeper, more meaningful and creative learning, or we shouldn’t bother to use it at all. We need our equivalents to the stop signs, traffic lights and lane lines that made driving less hazardous, in order for technology to benefit us, and not the big platforms or advertisers.
Now that our honeymoon with technology is over, we must confront its shortcomings while harnessing all of its good. We have much work to do, and it is imperative that we address it now.
I’d love to hear your ideas: What do you do to ensure responsible use of technology in your home?