The Problem Isn’t Screen Time, The Problem is Content

Christopher Benek

About a month ago The New York Times published an article titled A Dark Consensus About Screen and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. The subtitle - that quoted an executive assistant from Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg - read, “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.” Personally, I believe nothing could be further from the truth. The issue regarding kids and technology is not screen time – the issue is that there is a lack of virtuous content.

The author of the article Nellie Bowles went on to describe how “a wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: the benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high.” She goes on to say that the debate in Silicon Valley has now shifted to consider how much exposure to screens should be considered acceptable.

The article presents options between permitting zero screen time and comparing it to crack cocaine to a series of implemented rules. Chris Anderson, a former editor at Wired Magazine said,

“We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand. …This is scar tissue talking. We’ve made every mistake in the book, and I think we got it wrong with some of my kids.”

Now, reportedly, Anderson has 12 tech rules in his home which include: no screens in bedrooms, network-level content blocking, no phones until the summer before high school, no social media until age 13, no iPads at all and screen time schedules enforced by Google Wifi that he controls from his phone. If the child misbehaves in Anderson’s system they are prohibited from being online for 24 hours.

Anderson’s homemade rules aren’t untypical. Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids near iPads until they were older. Bill gates forbade cellphones until his children became teenagers. John Lilly – the former CEO of Mozilla – worries that his 13-year-old is being manipulated into buying Fortnite skins.

But amidst all of the fear that screens are radically messing up our kids, I believe everyone seems to be missing the point. The problem isn’t really screen time. The problem is that there isn’t enough virtuous content being created to occupy our kids' time when they are on these devices.

Technology, including screens, is not inherently bad for humans. This is not to imply that we shouldn’t be self-limiting at times so as to avoid idolatry. But, we should also be careful not to unnecessarily demonize tech as well.

That is because tech really isn’t the problem. How we choose to use technology and the motivations of the people who create it is the real issue at hand. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that – until we begin to care for and teach practices of virtue formation in the lives of technologists – humanity will reap exactly what we sow.

It is for exactly such reasons that I’ve recently worked to create the organization CoCreators that helps with these types of issues. When tech types aren’t sure how to act virtuously or how to create virtue-driven products, they need to turn to experts who have experience in cultivating such formational values. Because - unless we begin investing in people to create better content (and better technology in general) – we will always try to make a scapegoat of something else when the problem is actually just self-inflicted.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. What do you think are appropriate regulations of screen times for kids and why?

Q2. How might creating virtuous content help dissuade arguments against screen time?

Q3. What benefits have you observed screen-time having for children?