A few years ago, I was invited to a meeting at the lakeshore cottage of Jim Balsillie, co-founder of the company that invented the BlackBerry. ("Cottage" was a bit of a misnomer. It was an impressive log house the size of a small hotel.) We were requested to surrender our devices at the door, so as not to be distracted. During a break, I snooped around to see how a tech titan lived. There was not a screen in sight. No computers, no video games, no TVs. The main feature of the rec room was an old-fashioned table-hockey game. To entertain themselves, the kids were encouraged to go down to the lake and catch frogs.
What did Mr. Balsillie know that we don't? He probably sensed that the 24/7 tech world he helped to invent could become the monster that's now raging out of control.
Consider your typical family restaurant. Your typical table features two parents, two kids and four devices. All the humans are interacting with their screens but not each other. Parents are supposed to manage their kids' screen use. But how can they do that if they can't even manage their own?
"Just like we need a scale for our weight we need a scale for our digital lives," Tony Fadell, a former senior Apple executive, told The Wall Street Journal.
The smartest people in the world have figured out how to manipulate our pleasure centres for their own profit. Now, they're warning of the damage done. "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," charged Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, at a business forum in November. He said his kids "are not allowed to use that shit."
It all happened fast. Just a decade after smartphones were invented, every other 10-year-old has one in her pocket. U.S. sociology professor Bradford Wilcox believes this era shares certain features with the divorce wave of the 1970s. The rapid spread of divorce upended family life, with consequences nobody foresaw. At first, people didn't think much about the impact on kids. Then public intellectuals began to raise serious concerns about the damage done. Today, data show that stable marriages mark a growing class divide between upper middle-class families, where they are still the norm, and kids farther down the social ladder, where they aren't. The consequences of the divorce revolution are far from trivial.
Today, the tech alarm is being sounded loudest by Jean Twenge, whose bestselling book, iGen, argues that kids today are growing up less happy and far less prepared for adulthood than ever before. Are these fears overblown? I'm not so sure. Personally, if I were the mother of a 13-year-old daughter today, I'd be strongly tempted to move my family to a remote village somewhere off the grid and keep her there until she's 21.
As with divorce, Mr. Wilcox speculates that the negative effects of this vast social experiment are likely to be unevenly distributed. Kids from upper-middle-class and elite families with supervigilant parents will probably be all right. As for children who are already struggling – probably not so much.
"The kids in my class are far less prepared for reading than ever before," says a kindergarten teacher I know. She thinks the reason is that they interact with screens at home, not books. Things won't improve as they get older. Smartphones hurt focus and learning because they are hugely distracting. Kids use them for entertainment – and struggling students with smartphones are the most distracted of all, as another teacher wrote in The Atlantic.
So what's a worried parent to do? Not many parents are gutsy enough to pull the plug. But baby steps – managing filters, limiting screen time – probably won't be enough to make a difference.
Andy Crouch is the author of a thoughtful book called The Tech-Wise Family. He has some radical advice for how to keep the monster under control. I don't think many people will follow it, though, because it's just too hard. The first thing you have to do is put the family back at the centre of family life. Which means interacting with each other, not just when you have to, but with intention, all the time. The whole point of family is to be present for each other. You can't let technology get in the way. Among his prescriptions: No screens until age 10. No phones in the bedroom. Parents have total access to their children's devices – and to each other's. Regular sabbaticals from screens every day, every week and every year, for everyone.
Having technology at your fingertips is endlessly, aimlessly, mindlessly distracting. It's like TV, but squared. It sucks up all the time that we could spend on other things – such as catching frogs – and turns us into passive zombies. It makes everything so easy. But what we need to grow and learn and thrive is challenges. Your iPad's piano keyboard app is no substitute for learning a real musical instrument.
The biggest problem of all is that technology is so isolating. You may be connected, but you're really all alone.
And the hard truth is that you have no hope of managing your children's relationship with technology unless you can manage your own. When Mr. Crouch asked older kids the thing they would most like to change about their relationship with their parents, here's how they answered: "I wish my parents were not on their screens and would have paid attention to me."
In other words, take them out to catch some frogs.