From Pierre, South Dakota, to Annapolis, Maryland, state boards of education are striving—with the best will in the world—to ensure that all children have computers in their little hands. From Juneau, Alaska, to Tallahassee, Florida, state governments are working—in accord with a great moral certainty—to connect all children to the Internet.
At the same time, the nation's publishing houses are issuing books, dozens in recent years, raging that computers and the Internet are hurting education, putting vulnerable children at risk, and destroying the innocence and imagination of childhood.
One of the oddest divides in American public life has emerged over the past decade. On the one hand, we have a nearly complete conviction among the nation's legislators and educational bureaucrats that we must spread the digital revolution hither and yon, till the children of every social class have equal access to the online world. The canons of fairness demand it. And on the other hand, we have just as complete a conviction among the nation’s writers and public thinkers that the young need to escape computers and phones—for the problem of the age is not connecting our children but disconnecting them.
So, in recent weeks, publishers have released Anya Kamenetz's The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life and Naomi Schaefer Riley's Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat. Which join Mary Aiken's The Cyber Effect and Jean M. Twenge’s iGen. Which joined Nicholas Kardaras's Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids and Thomas Kersting's Disconnected: How To Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids. Which joined Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and Richard Freed's Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. To say nothing of Gary Chapman's Growing Up Social, Joe Clement and Matt Miles's Screen Schooled, and many more books over the past few years. The average reader almost wants to scream: Enough already. We get it.
Except we don't get it. Not really. The education establishment is still caught in the glow of moral self-congratulation at their digitizing of education. The poverty activists are still outraged that the rich have greater online access than the poor. If a bill comes up before Maine's state legislature to spend $12 million a year ensuring grade-school children have computers, how could anyone refuse the feel-good measure? If members of the United States Senate rise to denounce the lack of easy online access for children in the nation's rural counties, who would dare speak against them? Who would refuse the children?
The answer is parents, thinks Naomi Schaefer Riley. Her Be the Parent, Please is among the sternest of these recent books about the dangers of computerized childhood, and perhaps for exactly that reason, it's also the most compelling. Kamenetz's The Art of Screen Time, for example, is a little kinder to the generations of parents who have allowed this transformation—and consequently a little squishier in its analysis and a little weaker in its proposals. But from Freed's Wired Child to Twenge's iGen, we've got enough data and analysis to convince even the most naive of cheerleaders for the computer revolution that something has gone awry in the press for the digitized future.
So, for example, in The Cyber Effect, Mary Aiken notes that "the variety of unsupervised and age-inappropriate content to explore online is almost limitless. And the number of children exposed to it grows every hour." Indeed, "if you spend time online, you are likely to encounter a far greater variety of human behavior than you have before—from the vulnerable to the criminal, from the gleeful and altruistic to the dark and murderous." Thirty years ago, "a person with a fetish or guilty pleasure of his or her own had to dig around in the public library for a copy of the Marquis de Sade's writings, go to an art-house cinema," to encounter any sado-masochism. The Internet has made access so universal that now we have a normalizing of the dark imagination—and made it easy for kids to find.
New studies of psychological damage from relentless connectivity have started to line up with the anecdotal evidence we've all seen. The cross-generational data are not yet complete, but we've got enough to suggest that, in the aggregate, clear psychological deficits are resulting from our machine-enabled interconnectedness. We have measurable amounts of the infantilizing of affect and depressed social skills, combined with a leap in the fetishism of the commercial commodity not seen since the beginnings of widespread ownership of TV sets. We have clear examples of dangerously indulged fantasy (especially through pornography but also online posing and role-playing), together with a devaluation of actual life when compared with the constantly Instagrammed lives of others that seem so much more fun than our own existence. We have body hatred and a false sense of dysmorphia, combined with an extreme overvaluation of the opinions and esteem of others as expressed through social media—which then mediates experience: As though from your ice-cream dessert to your dancing shoes, nothing is real unless you take a photo of it, post it online, and get enough likes clicked on it.
The dangers from all this are only dangers: They threaten the weak, rather than the strong, and most kids are strong enough to survive. It's worth considering, however, how much damage to the weak we are willing to accept in the name of empowering the strong.
The draconian solution would be to disallow use of computers till age 17 or 18. The digitized screen bends the mind through the mechanism of attention, and we shouldn't let children go online till they have formed the neural pathways of adulthood. This was the thought of Steve Jobs and a surprising number of other seminal figures in the computer revolution. They wanted to protect their own children from the very devices they were becoming fabulously wealthy producing.
Unfortunately, the culture is not going to keep its children offline; we've already sped past the moment where we might have done that. That's why in The Art of Screen Time, Kamenetz speaks constantly of "balance"—guiding the most easily persuaded of her readers, the upper-middle-class moms and dads, through the techniques she believes will help them increase the time their well-tended children spend offline. She offers advice, in other words, for strong financially stable families to ease the way for their psychologically stable children. And that's not wrong or unhelpful. But it does tend to ignore the moral concern we ought to have for the poor, the badly parented, and the vulnerable.
It's here that Naomi Schaefer Riley comes into her own in Be the Parent, Please, for she sees the cultural failure to help parents actually be parental. As she notes, one recent study has shown that minority children actually use their computers and phones more than other children. Another study quantified the difference: White children in America average under (a still shocking) 9 hours a day looking at a screen; black and Hispanic children average 13 hours.
And still we push to increase those numbers. There genuinely exists a digital divide between rich and poor, but the divide proves increasingly to be that the rich spend less time online than the poor. A Pew Foundation study discovered that African American teenagers are more likely to own smartphones than any other group. While 87 percent of teenaged Americans have access to a computer, the poor still have a rate of 80 percent—and they spend more time using them than their upper-middle-class peers.
As far as the push to digitize education goes, the only measurable gain of computerized schooling is in education about computers. Our math scores, our reading scores, and our knowledge of cultural history have all declined in the digital age. Being connected means that our children are learning less about what they should know: How to read, how to do math, and how to form appropriate social behaviors. Meanwhile, being connected means that our children are learning more about what they shouldn't know: How to indulge dangerous fantasies, how to hate their own looks, and how to separate themselves from real life.
Want to protect your children? Get them off Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and all the rest. Want to help protect the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable? Get our schools to stop their digitizing of education.