Students are back in classrooms and parents can finally have a brief respite from worrying about their children’s excessive screen use — or, at least, worrying it is all their fault. This angst peaks each year in the summer holidays, those long, sunny weeks illuminated in large part by the blueish light from children’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. The beep and ping of devices triggers complicated emotions. In many homes, parents simultaneously castigate their offspring’s use of tech and are relieved by it: like some goblin babysitter, it squats in the corner of family life, whispering powerfully, turning children silent and glassy-eyed.
The erratically applied adult phrases ‘That’s enough screen time!’ and ‘Give me that iPad!’ ring hopelessly around family homes, interspersed with squeals of refusal. Cannier parents have worked out that if they cannot contain the addiction they can manipulate it to their advantage: the threat of sudden iPad withdrawal is a behavioral corrective that trumps the useless ‘naughty step’ every time.
There is one group of parents, however, who restrict their children’s use of technology ruthlessly, so keenly are they aware of its potential for distraction and damage. They are the titans of tech, the very people whose job it is to develop and popularize these devices in the first place. Bill Gates, the principal founder of Microsoft, has said he banned his three children from owning a mobile phone until they were 14, excluded ‘tech’ from meal times and restricted its use before bed. His wife Melinda, a former Microsoft executive, said last year that if she could rewind the clock she would have held out further against smartphones: ‘I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets.’
The late Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, was even sterner: in a New York Times interview in late 2010, he revealed that his children had never used what was then Apple’s exciting new product, the iPad, saying: ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’ Tim Cook, the current Apple CEO, doesn’t have children of his own, but said: ‘I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on’ — including a firm instruction to stay off social media. One might have imagined that the self-proclaimed geeks and nerds of Silicon Valley would be tech’s greatest cheerleaders. Yet it seems that the tech elite are instead keenly aware of just how much effort goes into making devices addictive, and how disturbingly successful that has been. As constant ‘connectivity’ seems to be warping both our political systems and our mental health, some tech pioneers are showing signs of guilt, rendered uneasy by the monstrous reach of their inventions.