Anya Kamenetz is the lead digital education correspondent for NPR and author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.
Almost a decade ago I was reporting for a magazine about the origins of the big-brand sustainable consumer product industry.
Chemists at Clorox had been experimenting for a decade with naturally derived cleaning materials before they launched their first big "green" brand. It wasn't obvious then that this would be a huge market. This was before Wal-Mart started selling organic food and installing solar panels; before Chipotle made Niman Ranch pork a household name.
But one Clorox marketing executive, a new mom herself, told me it was mothers who made the difference: The mothers around her were "chattering" constantly about natural cleaning. Their concern for their children's optimal safety and well-being made them willing to seek out an alternative, and the industry changed to accommodate them.
These days, a main worry of every new parent is another kind of environmental toxin: overexposure to digital media. Researchers and clinicians alike are sounding alarms: Too much screen time can disrupt sleep, affect weight, increase aggression, anxiety and depression, and build up into a compulsion. The effects are relatively small across populations, but they can be severe in particularly vulnerable children, and we don't know exactly who will be most susceptible.
Disengaging from screens is hard for us and our kids. We can't just go cold turkey because technology is ubiquitous. Most of us wouldn't want to, because media has proven benefits as well, even for young children. For adults, it's downright indispensable.
So there's a real dilemma here. When I was researching my book The Art of Screen Time, I asked experts what a better analogy for screens was: food or tobacco? They came down on the side of food. The message I came home with isn't "Just say no"; instead, cribbing from food writer Michael Pollan, it's "Enjoy screens; not too much; mostly together."
Finding a healthy balance is possible, but it's not easy. Right now, the media industry is largely self-regulating through agencies like the Entertainment Software Review Board. They create complex ratings systems and push the responsibility on to parents to decide what their kids should watch or play from an endless smorgasbord of options.
The technology industry? It's barely regulated at all. Platform and device companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook have thus far taken little responsibility for designing devices and services that are outrageously compelling to use and have very few brakes built in. To take one example, Apple, Amazon, and Google have each had to refund millions of dollars to parents whose children made in-app purchases without their knowledge or consent.
These companies also take little responsibility for the cyberbullying, hate speech, revenge porn and other types of harassment that too many young people experience on social media.
Yes, there are parental controls. But for every heavily engaged parent who has the time and knowledge to tweak the settings on a Kindle Fire, there are many more tweens and teens obsessing over keeping a 500-day "streak" going on Snapchat. That's the kind of feature that author Natasha Dow Schull, in her study of slot machine gambling in Vegas, calls "addictive by design."
It will take a massive force to steer the media and technology industries toward models that make it easier to find a healthy balance using tech.
I nominate parents to lead on this. It is hard to find a group of people that has more motivation to push for creating technology that can be used safely, positively and – this is key – in moderation.
Parents have moral authority and pocketbook power. Mothers still drive the majority of consumer decision-making in this country. And millennial parents, the first generation who grew up with digital media, have quite the tech habits ourselves.
Shielding our children's developing brains is, or should be, one of our top priorities. The recent open letter from shareholders to Apple calling for more research, more openness and better parental controls is a first step.
And that's before we talk about what it means to be raising the most diverse generation in history. All parents, and especially parents of children of color, LGBT kids, neurodiverse kids and more I could name, have a strong interest in promoting both a more positive tenor of conversation online and healthier relationships with technology.
That means at a time when there is a broader conversation going on around ethics in the technology industry, parents are key stakeholders. I just don't think we've realized it yet.