IMAGINE the boss of McDonald’s giving an interview in which he revealed that he banned his own children from eating his company’s food until they were 12 — and even then imposed severe rations of just one Big Mac meal every month.
Or imagine the head of General Motors saying he didn’t want his own kids driving one of his cars.
Or the boss of Tesco saying he advised his family to shop elsewhere for their groceries.
A bit weird, don’t you think? Apart from the obvious effect on the company share price, it would leave you deeply suspicious as to their motives, not to mention the worth of their products.
Yet, in our social media-fixated world, we often find that the people at the top of the hi-tech tree impose just such restrictions on their own kith and kin.
Exhibit A: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. In 2017, he told a reporter that he banned devices from meal times.
“We didn’t give our kids cell phones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier,” added Gates, who four years earlier admitted restricting his daughter’s’ screen time when she got attached to a video game.
Exhibit B: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. A year before he died, in 2010, he told The New York Times that he did not allow his kids to use the company’s newly-released iPad.
“We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he explained.
Exhibit C: Apple CEO Tim Cook, who told The Guardian a year ago: “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”
Ironic, isn’t it, that these giant beasts of the Silicon Valley jungle are actually dinosaurs when it comes to how much time their own family’s children spend on gadgets and social media?
Meanwhile, in the real world, up and down the land and across the globe, children are playing with the iPads, tablets, phones, computers and other gadgets which Santa has just brought them — and in many cases are doing so unfettered, unrestricted and uncensored.
As author Adam Alter put it in his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked: “It seemed as if the people producing tech products were following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.”
That may seem melodramatic, but in this brave new digital world, we really are seeing both children and adults addicted, with worrying consequences for physical and mental health and for society at large.
More and more research is backing up this argument.
One study found that teenagers who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than an hour a day.
Young people who use screens this much are also 52% more likely to sleep less than seven hours a night — with potential consequences for both physical and mental health.
The more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed or lonely.
Just yesterday, it emerged that a study by University College London found that more than a third of 14-year-olds who were heavy social media uses suffer clinical levels of depression.
Even those working in the industry acknowledge the risks.
Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, once said the social media site “exploits a vulnerability in human psychology”, adding: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”.
The good news is kids today are eschewing the wonders of his Facebook more and more... the bad news is they are fleeing instead into the open arms of equally addictive social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Heck, even Apple’s chief design officer has acknowledged that “constant use” of the iPhone is actually “misuse”.
Maybe that sentence should be emblazoned across his company’s products, in the same way that cigarette packets warn about the risks of smoking?
The strange thing here is not that the billionaire bosses of the world’s biggest hi-tech companies impose limits on their own children’s use of devices, it’s that ordinary parents like you and I find it so hard to follow suit.
The freedom our children have to prowl the internet, and the hours they spend doing so, will be looked back on in future decades as a form of madness — similarly to how we look back now on the power the Catholic Church once imposed on us.
It’s odd that parents up and down the country were this week planning their own health detox — from going dry for January, to ditching meat, to joining a gym — while the resolve required to impose a digital detox on their own children is so sadly lacking. I include myself in that category.
So, what are we to do?
Hopefully, 2019 will be the year the authorities really get a grip on the greater excesses of the world’s hi-tech giants — from the amount they pay in tax, to the bizarre attitude social media companies adopt in relation to what is posted on their sites. It’s not our fault, they proclaim, we can’t police all the trolls, they insist. Er, it really should be.
Closer to home, presidential candidate and senator Joan Freeman last month launched the Children’s Digital Protection Bill in the Seanad, which seeks to force internet service providers to remove or block access to pro-anorexia and suicidality information. How sad that such a common sense move has to be imposed through law.
Over in the UK, ministers are drawing up proposals aimed at imposing a limit on time spent by children on social media platforms, amid concern that over-use damages mental health. Teens face being cut off from social media sites after a few hours’ browsing under proposals being drawn up.
Matt Hancock, UK Secretary of State for digital and media, said he wanted varying time cut-offs for different ages on sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. “There is a genuine concern about the amount of screen time young people are clocking up and the negative impact it could have on their lives,” he said. “It is right that we think about what more we could do in this area.”
Damn right. It’s time our legislators began to practice what the likes of Bill Gates and Tim Cook have been preaching.