Former Silicon Valley tech executives team up to fight tech addiction

Former Silicon Valley tech executives team up to fight tech addiction
Updated: May. 15, 2018 at 8:20 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Young people obsessed with their smart phones and other hi-tech devices are a sign of the times across the country. When asked, some local kids admit they are hooked on their phones and social media apps.

"Snap chat, Instagram and Twitter," said Paige Larsen, talking about the apps she uses daily.

"We post pictures, then we text, and then we watch videos," said Raquel Medina.

It's a pattern of behavior Raquel's mother says is not healthy for any child.

"They will text you from another room. There is no personal touch anymore. That is what I think this generation has lost with the internet and the apps and social media. They've lost that personal touch," Teresa Payne said.

She's not the only one who's worried.

"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains. That was the quote from Facebook's first president, Sean Parker, on the impact of technology and social media on children.

Studies from groups like Pew Research show that heavy tech users have a higher risk for depression, anxiety and suicide. A Psychological Science study shows frequent social media use can rewire a child's brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification, leading to other addictive behaviors.

Now a former hi-tech Google executive is leading an anti-tech addiction campaign to expose how excessive use can impact the fragile developing brains of young people.

"There are millions of kids out there who, when they wake up in the morning, they don't just get to think about their lives or what's important to them. They're caught up in this social obligation," said former Google executive Tristan Harris.

Harris launched the coalition Center for Humane Technology. It's comprised of Silicon Valley software engineers and designers who invented many of the digital devices and online addictive features they're now condemning.

Harris points to addictive features like auto-play videos, endless scrolling on social media feeds, the "likes" on posts to make you feel happy, or pictures of friends and family doing things without you that either depress you or compel you to keep posting.

Harris wants people to be aware of what he calls the engineering tricks that tech companies use to capture the attention of kids despite their potential harm.

"It's not just enough that you used the product. I need to actually addict you to the product because that's the only way I can securely hold on to your attention," Harris said. "But then the second step is once that cable is really deep in the back with addiction, it can be sold to advertisers."

His coalition is working with the advocacy group Common Sense Media, which advocates for kids in the digital age.

"Addiction is not a healthy thing whether it's a cell phone, tobacco, alcohol or anything else," said Common Sense Media's CEO and founder James Steyer.

Together, both organizations also hope to redesign social media software to reduce its harm to young users.

"So this is a big public health crisis and we feel the tech industry needs to take much action to prevent this," said Steyer.

It also appears the executives and employees of big tech companies like Apple, Google and Yahoo are also taking extra steps to protect their kids from the very same devices they create and sell to the public. According to the New York Times, many tech executives send their kids to Waldorf, a private school in Silicon Valley that's part of the Waldorf network of schools across North America.

At Waldorf Schools, administrators ban or limit tech devices in classrooms because the school is based on a philosophy that perceives technology as a distraction to the learning process.

Limiting the use of social media is a challenge parents and schools face across the country, but many are losing the battle.

"We have seen a steady increase in the amount of teenagers whose overall lives and quality of life is suffering because of their attachment to cell phones. That is undoubtedly on the rise, and I don't see it getting better," said Ted Guastello.

Guastello is the vice president of operations at New Port Academy Teen Mental Treatment Facility – a facility that has seen an increase in young patients addicted to their devices. Guastello is also an expert on treating addictions.

He says teens addicted to cell phones suffer from symptoms such as high anxiety and depression. He says they're also unable to cope when they surrender their cell phones in treatment."

"I've had kids kicking down doors in order to get to their phones. So anything that has that strong of a pull on a human being really makes you stop and think." said Guastell.

Tulane University Social Media Professor Ashley Nelson believes young people's attachment to social media and smart phones hinder the development of basic communication skills needed in the real world. She says they lack the ability to interact with other human beings, and that includes something as simple as eye contact.

"I tell my students all the time, 'Look, eye contact is viewed as being trustworthy. People can look you in the eye in business and know they are dealing with someone they can trust," said Nelson.

Nelson says parents would be wise to listen to what the tech experts are saying as they sound the alarm on the digital devices that they created.

"They're giving us a warning – 'Hey parents, don't be fooled. This is not just a social tool for your kids to connect and have fun. There are some really bad outcomes with this," said Nelson.

If you're trying to unplug your kids from their devices, you're urged to start by setting up designated areas to put aside phones in the evening and at bedtime. Also plan phone-free indoor and outdoor activities to teach kids how to re-engage with the real world.

"If you want them to not be abusing the time on the computer, then don't do that yourself," said LSU Health Child Psychologist Dr. Richard Costa.

Mom Teresa Payne agrees that she needs to take a more active role given what she's heard from the inventors of the tech devices.

"I think they didn't realize how extreme it was going to get until now," she said.

It's why some of the early creators of social media and hi-tech devices are now fighting what they call a public health crisis for kids. In response to the growing criticism, Google recently released new features it claims will help with tech addiction. Apple claims it already has parental control devices in place, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he plans on addressing it along with other issues.

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