Your Kid’s Phone Is Not Like a Cigarette

A Common Sense spokeswoman, Corbie Kiernan, told me, “We use the term ‘addiction’ colloquially, not diagnostically,” in response to parents’ concerns. Of course, only a rank apologist would deny that there is cause for concern about the role mobile devices are playing in children’s and young people’s lives. Media habits are shifting fast: The amount of time children 8 years old and younger spend on phones or tablets has increased tenfold in just five years, according to a 2017 study by Common Sense. The organization also found that 42 percent of children under 8 already have their own mobile device. That number was less than 1 percent in 2011.

While those of us who grew up before smartphones can agree that these changes are jarring, the extent of the harm done to kids by more screens than we could ever have imagined is not at all clear. The real “truth about tech” is that there just isn’t enough research on this yet. For example, when I asked Victor C. Strasburger of the American Academy of Pediatrics how the organization arrived at its “no screens before age 2” recommendation, he said that later studies supported the guidance but admitted that at the time it was put into effect, “there was no evidence. None. We made it up.” (The group has since changed its stance, maintaining that it’s best to keep the youngest children away from screens, but making an exception for live video chat.)

An open letter in January from Apple shareholders calling for parental controls and more research into the effects of heavy use of mobile devices on youth was also based on fairly flimsy evidence. For example, the letter cited the work of a psychologist who analyzed large surveys to find that heavy electronic device use among teenagers is correlated with reports of loneliness, depression, anxiety and the increased presence of suicide risk factors. But this connection does not prove which way the causal arrow points. Perhaps teenagers who are under emotional duress gravitate toward their phones. Maybe they have parents with troubles of their own who are less capable of supervising them.

The science here is nothing like the kind that fueled the Truth campaign against cigarettes. For that reason alone, those working to make tech safer for kids can’t emulate that campaign.

The activism that led to greater automobile safety is a much better model. Without the smoking-gun science that can win a legal battle against a deep-pocketed industry, there’s no role in the campaign for tech safety for someone like Mike Moore, the former Mississippi attorney general who sued 13 tobacco companies. But there is a need for a modern-day Ralph Nader, the fiery young author who, in 1965, when his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” came out, accused automobile manufacturers of failing to make cars as safe as possible.

Nonprofits committed to addressing the impact of technology on children could also look to Candace Lightner for inspiration. She founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which lobbied Congress to strengthen laws and implored people through public campaigns to voluntarily hand over the car keys when intoxicated.

When it came to tobacco, the solution was simple: Quit or don’t start smoking. That’s not the case here. Phones, tablets and other devices that have caused so much concern have more in common with cars than with cigarettes; unlike tobacco, they are essential tools that can be used in a healthy way.

With this in mind, activists shouldn’t simply vilify the tech industry — they should goad it toward accountability as Mr. Nader, Ms. Lightner and others did with the auto industry. They need to summon the art of moral suasion to create powerful cultural memes, like that of the “designated driver,” to push us to use tech more safely. (Especially, by the way, in cars. Designated texters, anyone?)

The smartphone equivalents of seatbelts, airbags and anti-lock brakes may currently be in research and development. Just one example: Gabe Zichermann, a gamification expert, is developing an app called Onward that turns the process of quitting your phone into a game

Parents should grow into their roles as advocates for change in the tech industry, as they did with car safety. Moms and dads have a lot of clout. Senators found it hard to look Ms. Lightner in the eye and explain why the driver who killed her daughter hadn’t received a harsher punishment the first time he was caught driving drunk. Thanks in part to her advocacy, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984.

To be fair, the Truth About Tech campaign is seeking to raise awareness among parents and to address the industry. Its “Road Map for Kids’ Digital Well-Being” includes calls to “build public awareness” and “provide tools to educate parents, teachers and kids.”

Mr. Harris, of the Center for Humane Technology, who studied persuasive technology and then spent time as a digital ethicist at Google, now pushes for social networks to adopt less nefarious business models. He also suggests a simple method of making your phone less compelling: Set it to grayscale.

The campaign, and the concerned Apple shareholders, should focus on these kinds of approaches and avoid imitating the fight against Big Tobacco by creating a moral panic about the specter of addiction. After all, the goal is to inspire a cultural shift around technology like the one we saw around car safety — not to snuff out kids’ use of devices altogether.

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