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Tech giants want kids to cut screen addiction, but how?

By Nishant Arora

More and more kids are hooked on to screens, parents are worried how to create homework-play balance and tech giants in Silicon Valley are in a huddle, deliberating over how to help children cut screen addiction.

Two key Apple shareholders this month requested the Cupertino-based iPhone maker to take urgent steps to safeguard young users from the ill-effects of iPhone addiction.

In a letter, Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System told Apple to make its products safer for the younger users. “We have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner,” the letter read.

Facebook, which has over two billion users, is making drastic changes to its News Feed that will allow users to see more updates from family and friends than posts from businesses, brands and media.

According to its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has got a feedback from the community that public content — posts from businesses, brands and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.

Zuckerberg admits that the new changes might not pay off at first, but believes it is important that users have more meaningful social interactions.

The decision may result in a massive $23 billion revenue loss for Facebook as advertisers are not happy about being shooed away from their biggest online market on Earth.

This is not the first time such fears have come out in the open from the global tech industry.

Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, in an interview to the Mirror last year, said he has set strict rules for how his three kids grew up “in a home that forbade cell phones until age 14, banned cell-phone use at the dinner table, and set limits on how close to bedtime kids could use their phones”.

“You’re always looking at how it can be used in a great way — homework and staying in touch with friends — and also where it has gotten to excess,” Gates told the Mirror.

Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs never let his kids use iPads at home. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs had told The New York Times.

According to Sean Parker, one of Facebook founders, the digital world’s addictive qualities “exploit a vulnerability in human psychology… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”.

To buttress their point, Apple shareholders, in their letter, cited latest research that linked depression to smartphone use among students.

However, a December study from the University of Michigan suggests that how children use the devices — not how much time they spend on them — is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction.

“Typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy,” said lead author Sarah Domoff.

“Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity,” she added.

Some of the warning signs include if screen time interferes with daily activities, causes conflict for the child or in the family, or is the only activity that brings the child joy.

It’s now a familiar sight in the majority of families including in India — young children bent over a screen for hours, texting or gaming, lost in a digital world — with parents worrying how much screen time is too much.

The awakening in the tech world is just another discussion point — this time among those who built it in the first place.

However, with billions of devices now being used in homes across the world, it is practically impossible to turn the clock back and tell kids to stop using gadgets.

The onus lies on parents who can learn from Gates and Jobs how to minimise screen time cautiously and judiciously — without making our kids angrier and more stubborn.

Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook wants all primary school children to be taught coding alongside the alphabet. For him, coding is “just another language, and just like any other language, it should be taught in schools”.

It is possibly time to buy a device with high-performance computing capabilities for your kids at home.

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