April 13, 2024
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The Impact of Gadgets, Phones, Games and Computers on Our Children

Much of the recent congressional tumult and the upcoming midterm elections have gotten in the way of actual legislation. A bill was introduced in Congress for consideration this past summer, which is particularly significant in light of the current debate over video game violence and other online materials that may have a negative impact on our children.

Despite recent self-serving studies by the Entertainment Software Association concluding that violence in video games has no discernible negative psychological effects on children or adolescents, and several studies finding distinct benefits to playing video games, the debate continues both in the media and in the political arena. The advent of technologies, such as cell phones, video games, and audio playback devices present new and wide-ranging challenges in understanding how different forms of media influence our children. This legislation will provide a more complete picture and allow us to draw from comprehensive research as we try to understand both the positive and negative impact media is having on our children.

Congress wants to spend $95 million to study how gadgets and social media affect children. The proposal is called the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, or CAMRA Act. A bipartisan group is behind the bill, so it might actually have a chance of passing. The bill is not new. Back in 2004, Sen. Joseph Lieberman wanted to study the effects of electronic media on our youth. It fizzled out. The same thing happened when a version of the bill was introduced again in 2007—just a few months before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.

Essentially, the new bill is an attempt to use CAMRA funded research and study in a more unified, collaborative fashion; tying together research and study programs currently undertaken by several different government offices to more accurately determine the true effects of media (including television, movies, and video games) on children.

Since there are iPhones in every pocket, people are a lot more concerned about what exposure to screens and social media is doing to impressionable young minds. The bill would set aside funding for the National Institutes of Health to research the effects of technology and media on everyone from babies to young adults. This includes mobile devices, computers, social media, apps, websites, TV, movies, AI, video games, and virtual and augmented reality.

More and more kids are exposed and even addicted to tech. Companies have been forced to apologize for it. Parenting increasingly involves establishing rules and guidelines for using devices. Maybe this time around, Congress can finally agree we need to do more to understand how technology hurts and helps children.

Kids are spending more time staring at screens, but there’s little scientific research about how it affects their health and development. This bill would authorize the director of the National Institutes of Health to conduct and support research into how early exposure to media technology can impact child development, cognitive, and physical health. The research would also inform parents and policymakers about issues today’s youth face in the digital age, including bullying and depression, according to Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts who introduced the bill. “What we feed the minds of children is as important as what we feed their bodies. We need to understand it as best we can,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Tech addiction has become a top issue in Silicon Valley as companies reexamine the impact of the platforms they’ve helped create. Earlier this year, former employees at companies such as Google and Facebook formed a new organization called Center for Humane Technology focusing on the issue of rethinking and redesigning tools to be less intrusive on humanity. Without good research, we are performing an unprecedented experiment on our kids.

In the meantime Apple introduced an iOS update that allows users to track how much time they’re spending on their phones and apps each day. The concept aims to educate users about their consumption habits. According to a 2017 report from Common Sense, kids under the age of 8 spent about 48 minutes a day using mobile devices, up from 15 minutes a day in 2013. Usage among teens has skyrocketed.

The bill, which is cosponsored by Democratic and Republican legislators and has received endorsement from Facebook and Common Sense Media, is a direct response to two things. The first is society’s mounting concern over its problematic relationship with technology. The second is the dearth of evidence that a truly problematic relationship exists. No scientific consensus currently exists on how tech addiction should be defined or even measured. Studies on the cognitive, behavioral, and social effects of smartphones and apps has been limited and inconclusive. Regarding the state of research on devices and childhood development, researchers are still gathering evidence on how best to balance technology’s “obvious benefits” with its “potential harms”.

CAMRA would go a long way toward helping researchers gather that evidence. The NIH currently devotes little money to the investigation of technology’s role in dependence, mental health, and childhood development. The NIH funds a huge percentage of the world’s substance abuse research, yet funds almost no investigations on technology, internet, and gaming disorders. Ninety five million dollars could change that in a big way, if the bill becomes law.

Senator Lieberman’s earlier version of the bill authorized the distribution of grants for research on “electronic media television, motion pictures, DVDs, interactive video games, digital music, the Internet, and cell phones.” Since then, the slab of glass in your pocket has come to encompass everything else on the list (along with social media, apps, AI, and virtual reality), to say nothing of the speakers in our homes and headsets on our faces.

The go-anywhere, be-anything nature of today’s devices is one reason advocates for humane technology argue they pose a greater threat to society’s well-being than past technologies. It may also be why today’s incarnation of CAMRA benefits from the support of a diverse group of legislators: six senators (three Democrats and three Republicans) and two congresspersons. The Lieberman bill did not attract much bipartisan attention, which indicates the difference between the reaction to video games in the 2000s vs. the reaction to digital devices and media today. If the bill become a law, it could give a sorely needed boost to the study of digital well-being. That would be good news for the youth—and probably the rest of us, too.

By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is known as an advocate for educational issues facing children and families.

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