Why Adults Need to Stop Complaining About How Kids Use Technology
Their habits simply mirror ours
Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash
Doors slam quickly when I return home after picking up my 11- and 14-year-old sons from school. They’re not angry or depressed, but they seem to crave some time alone on weekday afternoons. I guess they need opportunities to be liberated from the social stress of the everyday school routine. And their preferred way to do that is online. I sympathize, but I also can’t help but be annoyed.
Within minutes, I can hear the muffled sound of YouTube videos blasting from my sons’ smartphones. After a while, they transition out of the spectator role, and I cringe hearing them scream into their headsets as they play multiplayer games with friends from school. Their overly enthusiastic conversation mimics the exclamations, trash-talk, and humor they regularly hear from the web’s most popular video-streaming stars. I roll my eyes.
I’m typically sitting at my desk, settled into my comfortable Steelcase swiveling chair, trying to respond to emails and finish the day’s work. But my kids’ pubescent voices are distracting. Their use of slang, idioms, and inside jokes is downright irritating. Also, I’m tired of screaming at them to “watch the profanity.” So, I pull on my Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-canceling headphones and launch Pzizz, an app that creates an ambient soundscape, algorithmically engineered to encourage focus and productivity. Sometimes, I just need solitude; I need ways to ignore the children.
When kids concentrate on screens for hours at a time, parents worry. But this is precisely what we consider to be good professional behavior.
Almost everything about adolescent gaming culture annoys me. But my kids and I have a lot in common and I see the irony in our parallel habits. First, the consumerism: my chair and headphones — purchased after reading so many online product reviews — are no different than YouTube star PewDiePie’s branded Clutch Throttle Series gaming chair and his cat-ear Razer Kraken headset. Then, there are the many hours they spend each day staring at a screen. I can criticize my kids, but ultimately, their behaviors look a lot like mine. When kids concentrate on screens for hours at a time, parents worry. But this is precisely what we consider to be good professional behavior.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently voted to approve the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a global standard for diagnosing, reporting, categorizing, and researching health conditions. A lot of media attention has focused on WHO’s decision to include “ gaming disorder ” in the revised manual, and there’s been considerable coverage about the ICD-11’s inclusion of work-related “ burnout .” These two classifications are not the only changes made in the new ICD, but they have gotten the most attention. Why? Because they reflect our anxiety, confusion, and misconceptions about the relationship between digital technology, work-life balance, and psychological well-being.
According to the ICD-11, “gaming disorder” is defined as spending so much time playing video games that it “takes precedence over other interests and daily activities.” “Burnout” is what happens when folks are so stressed at work that they experience “feelings of negativism or cynicism” and “reduced professional efficacy.” In other words, gamers spend too much time with screens, while burnouts are so distanced and depleted that they can’t use their screens well. When our kids concentrate on screens, we worry about their health. But in fact, adults exemplify this sort of behavior on a daily basis.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, 75% of jobs will require computer use. And some of the most desirable jobs in the U.S. require especially heavy computer use. U.S. News and World Report listed “software developer” as the #1 Overall Best Job in 2019. Many of the list’s other frontrunners could be characterized as heavy screen time professions: information security analyst, IT manager, statistician, accountant, marketing manager, etc. The ranking is based not only on salary, but also it considers work-life balance, stress level, growth prospects, and other factors related to overall job satisfaction. We are very fond of jobs that require extensive screen time. So, why do we complain so much about our kids’ screen time? Are we trying to preserve our children’s innocence? Is it about protecting them from the indecency of adult labor? Perhaps. But if that’s the case, it represents a strange shift in attitude.
Are we dissatisfied with the monotonous busywork of a screen time economy? Or are we perfectly content with the way we’ve designed our professional lives?
Traditionally, we’ve encouraged our children to engage in make-believe work, partially because it prepares them to live well-adjusted professional lives within specific economic and technological contexts. We give kids toy doctor’s kits, cash registers, toolsets, and tractors. Barbie has held many different careers over the years, each one appropriate to its specific historical era — she’s been an astronaut (1965), a surgeon (1973), a UNICEF ambassador (1989), an art teacher (2002), a presidential candidate (2004), a TV chef (2008), and more.
Over the course of the 20th century, chemistry sets became popular toys, marketed to boys at a time when plastics and atomic energy were poised to transform our economy. The first was Chemcraft, designed by John J. Porter in 1914. In a society that celebrated superstar chemists like Louis Pasteur and Otto Hahn instead of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, parents presumably imagined that providing their kids with early, aspirational exposure to innovative new technologies would set their offspring firmly on a trajectory toward lucrative employment and elite social status. In the 1960s, girls were encouraged to practice their domestic skills using Suzy Homemaker’s Miniature Appliances or Hasbro’s Easy-bake Ovens. Of course, nowadays most people object to the way toys like these reinforce problematic assumptions about gender and equality, evidence that we recognize imaginative play’s capacity to normalize our children’s expectations and attitudes about how adult life should be lived.
But how do we think adult life should be lived? Often, our actions betray our rhetoric. Grown-ups love to tell kids to spend more time outside, grumbling that no child will ever reminisce about their great summer of sending and receiving text messages. But parents spend more time indoors than children. Sure, we love to post about hiking and outdoor adventures on Instagram, but on average, Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors — an amount that seems to have stayed consistent over the past few decades (the time for which we have data).
A great deal of our indoor time is spent at workstations that look just like the desks where my sons play video games and watch YouTube videos (adults tend to remain seated for about 6.4 hours each day ). That’s no accident; offices were intentionally designed to encourage the peak productivity and concentration that we associate with a healthy, well-adjusted, and successful grown-up life. First, Frederick Winslow Taylor famously used a stopwatch to collect precise data about workplace efficiency. Then, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in 1903, introducing architectural innovations engineered to maximize productivity and reinforce corporate culture. And in the 1960s, Robert Probst invented the “Action Office” — the original “workstation,” intended to provide the autonomy, independence, and privacy necessary to accomplish “knowledge work.” Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace, explains that Probst’s “original cubicle was about liberation.” People needed spaces that kept them separate from their colleagues.
When you walk into almost any office today, you find most employees in a space that looks just like the desk at which my boys engage in digital play. And although many parents complain that our children seem isolated — they think online interaction can’t possibly provide the kind corporeal and effective feedback that promotes positive social skills — remember that grown-ups are constantly expressing their hatred of face-to-face meetings. According to a survey in the Harvard Business Journal , 71% of senior managers said that “meetings are unproductive and inefficient.” Most of us prefer to get lost in a cocoon of solitude and we’ve designed our adult lives in order to make this possible.
In-between long periods of intensely isolated focus, I toggle through my browser tabs, checking social media and hoping to feel the dopamine rush that comes with finding a notification.
The similarities between my digital behavior and that of my kids are ostensible: Slack is comparable to Discord. Most of my meetings now take place on Skype or Zoom, and I wear a headset, with the webcam making me look just like a YouTuber. In-between long periods of intensely isolated focus, I toggle through my browser tabs, checking social media and hoping to feel the dopamine rush that comes with finding a notification. Then, I read the news for a few minutes to make sure I haven’t missed any good video clips of Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi: memes for grown-ups. I feel very satisfied with this professional life, and don’t really have any desire or motivation to change my daily routine.
Sure, it sometimes seems like the source of parental screen time anxiety is that we don’t like the way our children mirror our own behaviors — it’s easier to scapegoat video games than to take a long hard look at ourselves. But it’s not really that simple, is it? Because even when we do look at ourselves, we’re confused by what we see. Are we dissatisfied with the monotonous busywork of a screen time economy? Or are we perfectly content with the way we’ve designed our professional lives? Things get even more confusing when parents are told: look at your own relationship with digital technology and think about how to set better examples for your children. But we love our own digital behaviors just as much as we love to hate them.
So maybe, what my boys really need is more screen time — more practice developing strategies to stare at screens all day without experiencing “burnout.”
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