Tech is Like Sex: Abstinence Isn’t the Answer

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In a sea of scaremongering thinkpieces, the recent article A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley by Nellie Bowles stands out for its evangelical hyperbole.

The piece is filled with quotes like, “I am convinced the devil lives inside our phones,” and “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” and describes tech giants like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates banning social technology for their children.

Moral panics about technology are at least as old as the invention of writing. These panics dominate our cultural consciousness until the next tech is invented, following which we repeat the cycle all over again.

Tech giants are also not social scientists. They may have access to some of the disturbing manipulations embedded in algorithms, and “the real experts are terrified” sure makes for a great story. But if you want expert opinions, you are better off consulting actual data from actual scientists than disenchanted software engineers on speaking circuits.

Most importantly, in thinking about our youth and their relationship with technology, I think we can draw quite a number of lessons from sexual education.

Study after study shows that comprehensive sex education, which incorporates information about contraception and safe sex, is more effective in preventing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease than abstinence-only education, and may even reduce sexual activity among teens.

You can’t hide sex from teens, but you can communicate that it is a glorious thing that is nonetheless fraught with potential physical and emotional harm, and then offer youth both information and practical tools to healthfully manage their sexual lives — information and tools that will benefit them not just while they’re young but throughout their lives.

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Similarly, you can’t keep your child away from the lure of social media and smartphones forever, but you can explore with them both the potential upsides as well as the dangers, pitfalls, and inequities. You can both instruct and model healthy relationships to social technology. You can do so in ways that honor their existence as digital citizens in this new and quickly changing landscape, and similarly offer them information and tools that will benefit them in the present moment and into the future.

Depression and anxiety among our young people may be on the rise, and many researchers are pointing the finger at the shiny rectangles that live in their pockets. But other researchers are pointing their finger instead at changes in (largely upper-middle-class) parenting practices that increasingly hover and bulldoze and micro-manage, that don’t respect the autonomy of our youth, that don’t let them try and fail and then try again, that shelter and that disempower.

Banning all tech in childhood may be just another step in this bubble-wrap approach to parenting that may be encouraging passivity and withdrawal rather than resilience.

Like teens are sexual beings, they are also incredibly social ones, and part of the task of childhood and adolescence is to create and explore their own social worlds outside of the watchful gaze of adults.

Ironically, bubble-wrap parenting could in fact be driving teens to their phones. Founder and president of Data and Society Research Institute danah boyd spent years working and talking with adolescents and found again and again that youth reported preferring to spend time together, but were increasingly isolated into a roster of sheltered activities and their homes by over-controlling parents wary of letting the young people in their charge explore the world on their own terms. Siloed, they turn to the online world to interact and socially develop.

#bradheckman of @newyorkpeace

I was recently lying on a beach with my old-school-parenting mother. We watched my cousin and her husband follow their toddler son back and forth on the sand, arms outstretched awkwardly on either side of him to be sure to catch him lest he fall.

“Shouldn’t somebody tell them they don’t have to do that?” my mother queried, a bit too loudly.

At the time I shushed her.

But maybe she’s right.

Maybe somebody should also tell Bill Gates.

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Sarah Rose Cavanagh

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Psychologist, professor, author of The Spark of Learning and Hivemind. Occasionally geeks out. Usually on Twitter @SaRoseCav.

Thoughts And Ideas

An attempt to bring heart-touching and thought-provoking writing under one roof to make an impact.