Why Melinda Gates Regrets Her Kids’ Smartphone Use

How could she have known? That seems to be the claim Melinda Gates was making when she recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how [smartphones] would transform the way my kids grew up—and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up.”

The Gates’ oldest child was born in 1996, ten years before the iPhone was introduced. While it often seems to parents like time is flying, the effects of screens have been obvious for some time now. It’s true there have not yet been large-scale longitudinal studies about smartphones and children, but anyone who was paying attention could see that these devices were changing the way we think, the way we behave, and the way we interact with others.

When cell phone use started to become widespread in the late 1990s, it was mostly adults who got them—some for work and some for personal use. Having just moved to New York City, I remember the great convenience of being able to call friends from somewhere other than my apartment to see if they wanted to meet or check where I was supposed to be. But almost immediately the phones became a way for friends to be perpetually late. “I’m on my way,” they’d call to say fifteen minutes after they were supposed to have arrived.

Blackberries quickly followed and then it became clear that everyone’s boss could reach them at all hours, and that even going on vacation was not a legitimate reason for being out of touch. By 2000, people were checking the email and text messages on their devices during meals, movies and meetings. Phones were interrupting friends having coffee, couples on dates and parents talking to their children.

Some people thought that cell phones were wonderful anyway, but I also knew several people who resisted buying them or didn’t want their office to give them out. It didn’t take a PhD in psychology to notice that the devices were changing our lives.

How odd it would be if they didn’t do the same to our children. What’s particularly strange about the way that smartphones have managed to work their way into the pockets of most adolescents in America is that they have done so at the same time that parents have tried to mitigate all sorts of other risks. They worry more about kids crossing the street by themselves or playing outside. They want to know about the potentially harmful effects of foods, the safest child car seats, the strongest strollers, the most flame-retardant pajamas, etc.

For so many aspects of raising children, parents have used the precautionary principle. But when it comes to the use of phones, they seem willing to throw caution to the wind. They demand scientific proof that phones might be causing problems before they will start to restrict their use.

Gates writes, “I think back to how I might have done things differently. Parents should decide for themselves what works for their family, but I probably would have waited longer before putting a computer in my children’s pockets. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up.”

No kidding. For someone like Gates and her husband, whose professional lives and philanthropic initiatives are supposedly based on collecting evidence, examining data and constantly evaluating progress, it seems rather shocking that she would have let her children’s lives be altered in this way, only to announce her regrets later. Now that she and many other parents like her have shared her experience, though, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

Image: By Chatham House, London [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • InklingBooks

    We can learn from the Amish about the appropriate use of technology.

    Faced with adopting traditional telephones or not, they looked at the advantages and disadvantages. The advantages including being able to summon help in an emergency. The disadvantages included having family meals interrupted by unnecessary calls, much as cell phones do now. Their solution was to get a phone, but place it and later an answering machine in a small shed remote from the house. That allowed them to send and receive emergency calls but not to have the phone dominate their lives, feeding gossip and weakening personal contact. (Yes, just like texting.)

    We need to do something similar with smartphones, both in our own lives and in those of our children. Here’s an article about the Amish response to traditional phones and the complications they have faced dealing with cellphones.

    http://amishamerica.com/do-amish-use-telephones/

    Cellular companies and tech companies such as Apple and Google have spent billions adding features to smartphones. Someone needs to come up with ways to remove the more destructive features, particularly where children are involved. And the fact that someone as rich and deeply embedded in technology as Melinda Gates sees the problems suggests there’d be wide support for that.

    –Michael W. Perry, medical writer