What Our Brain On Tech Means for Kids and Adults Alike

By Katie Couric & Common Sense Media

For the past eight months I’ve been crisscrossing the country to talk with politicians, celebrities, activists and everyday Americans about some of the most complex and thorny issues of our day for my Nat Geo series America Inside Out.

I wanted to connect the dots to help people understand the tectonic plates of change that are happening in this country — demographic, cultural, economic, technological — that are creating friction, causing anxiety and forcing us into our intractable, comfortable corners.

Some of these changes — like moving away from manufacturing economy or the shift to a “minority majority” population — have occurred over time. Other transitions have felt more immediate and seismic; one of those is technology, especially the birth of the iPhone a decade ago.

It’s hard to imagine going anywhere without a smartphone. As we become inured to the “gee whiz” wonder of our phones capabilities, I wondered how this constant connectivity was affecting our humanity… our quality of life, our children, our psyches, our ability to create and relate. Were we actually better before we could check out our friend’s fabulous life, Google something at the drop of a hat, FaceTime with a relative halfway around the globe, listen to a podcast or book on tape walking in the park? Are we getting more than we’re missing? Or are we missing the things that really matter?

Chances are you’re reading this article on a screen — maybe your laptop or iPad, but even more likely, your smartphone. While no trees were harmed in the writing of this article, that doesn’t mean there’s not damage being done.

The average person checks their smartphone 150 times a day — that’s once every six or seven minutes they’re awake. I wanted to understand how we got here: why I’m always checking how many likes my latest Instagram post got, or how ten minutes of reading an article can turn into 45 minutes down a rabbit hole of clicks (anyone else have this problem!?)

So I spoke with psychologists, researchers and engineers about what all this connectivity is really doing to us — and found that left to our own devices, we may be losing a piece of ourselves. Anxiety has increased, loneliness is a national epidemic, deep-thinking has been imperiled and our democracy is being threatened. Yikes.

What concerns me most is what all this screen time is doing to kids.

According to Common Sense Media, teenagers in the US spend an average of nine hours a day on media in general. My friend, Jim Steyer, founded the non-profit 14 years ago to draw attention to these issues — realizing that there is so much work to do if we really want to bring the country closer together.

Jean Twenge’s groundbreaking research on mental health and smartphones found that rates of depression and anxiety are rising in young people who spend more time on their devices. Most alarming is what we’re seeing in young girls ages 12 to 14, where the suicide rate has tripled in the past ten years.

Researchers like Dr. Larry Rosen are looking at what the blue light from screens is doing to an undeveloped brain. They’re concerned that when the melatonin for sleep is interrupted so constantly with a spike in cortisol from phone usage, it could lead to plaque build-up in the brain that’s similar to what is found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

I spoke with former Google employee Tristan Harris, who now runs the Center for Humane Technology, about how we got to the point. He told me that these tech companies are built on an attention economy — meaning the business model incentives quantity of screen time over quality. He explained that there are thousands of engineers on the other side of our devices, manipulating our dopamine levels with features like phone dings, push notifications, and even the colors we see on screen. So if you feel like you can’t put your phone down, there’s a reason. .

Lest you think I’m a full-out luddite, I think technology has done extraordinary good. Connecting like-minded people committed to changing the world; robots can now perform flawless surgery; families living far away from each other can still feel like, well, families, and life is just plain easier for so many people. But as we examine this proverbial double-edged sword, we can’t be so busy looking at our screens that we fail to consider the downsides.

I am hopeful that things are starting to change, and that this conversation about how — and how much — we use technology is getting the attention it deserves. Earlier this year, activists wrote an open letter to Apple asking the company to address the impact their products are having on kids, while schools across the country are beginning to have conversations about what appropriate usage really is.

But as we’ve all seen, technology moves a lot faster than regulation, which is why Common Sense launched a Digital Well-Being campaign to raise awareness about the effects of digital distraction on our children, and highlight the techniques some companies use to keep use hooked. So I teamed up with the organization to put together a list of ways we can all have happy and healthy relationships with our devices — and even better, happy and healthy relationships with each other.

So let us know what you’re doing to get off the grid with your family using the hashtags #KeepTalking and #CommonSense (and then, really, put your phone away!)

COMMON SENSE THINGS THAT PARENTS CAN DO:

These simple steps can establish healthy habits and boost your family’s digital well-being.

Establish Clear Family Rules

Decide together what kind of media and tech is OK — and when. A family media plan can help get everyone get on the same page.

Create Screen-Free Times and Zones

Help your kids take breaks from their tech by limiting screen time in bedrooms, while studying, or at the dinner table.

Practice Digital Citizenship

Talk about what it takes to stay safe and be responsible online, including tackling real-life challenges like privacy and digital drama.

Try Parental Controls

Set content limits that make sense for your family. Check the settings on apps your kids use to keep personal information private.

Watch and Play Together

Choose quality, age-appropriate media to enjoy with your kids. Visit commonsensemedia.org to find shows, games, and more.

Digital well-being is Common Sense. Learn more about taking charge of your kids’ digital health at commonsense.org/digital-wellbeing.

COMMON SENSE THINGS TECH COMPANIES CAN DO

Technology has already revolutionized how our kids learn and play. Now, companies have a responsibility to build products with their youngest users in mind.

Protect Our Data

Companies should always notify users and ask permission before sharing, selling, or using people’s personal data.

Call Out Fake News

We need to know where our news is coming from. Platforms should label non-human accounts (aka bots) and clarify whether content is factual.

Prioritize Parental Controls

Companies should make strong privacy settings the default and make sure family-management tools are easy to find and use.

Fund Independent Research

We need more research to inform product design and determine how media and tech use affects children’s healthy development.

Design Humane Products

More moderators, smarter algorithms, and ethical design can help ensure that our kids have access to quality, trustworthy content.

Don’t Target Kids with Ads

Research shows that kids benefit from media balance. Children’s time and attention should never be used for profit.

America Inside Out with Katie Couric airs Wednesdays at 10/9C on Nat Geo Channel. “Your Brain on Tech” airs Wednesday, April 25, and can be found On-Demand on NatGeo and Hulu, and free on Facebook and YouTube until May 17.