Hey Big Tech, Now is the Perfect Time to Support Our Kids

Zoom school may be over for most of us, but many of our children will continue to spend more time online each week than they do in physical schools.

Digital devices in the hands of today’s teens and tweens are here to stay. We need to start investing in the digital infrastructure that undergirds their development, in the same way we invest in our younger children’s daycares and playgrounds. I will explain why.

Adolescents are connecting more online

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For close to a year, online schooling and increased screen time have become a staple in most American households. Adolescents are going online more to play, share, and create together. Even before the pandemic, many American adolescents spent more time online each week than they spent in schools. Youth-centered social and lighthearted creation and gaming platforms like TikTok and Roblox have exploded during the pandemic. The increased use has been alarming for parents who worry about too much time spent online. Still, for the most part, digital technology has been a lifeline to social connection and essential services.

Conversations about “screen time” before the pandemic were also driven by fears that too much time online was harmful. But, science suggests that this is the wrong conversation to be having—with no reliable links between screen time and many of the outcomes we fear. It is now time to stop screaming about screen time and ask how we can improve the spaces where our kids spend much of their day learning, entertaining, and socializing.

The first step in optimizing online spaces for children is acknowledging that they are present in the spaces that Big Tech companies have started to police. Despite many social media platforms requiring a user age of 13 or over, when we asked adolescents in our 2015 survey, half of the 11-year-olds reported having a social media account. This number snowballed to 85 percent by age 14. While some companies have more kid-friendly apps, such as YouTube Kids or Messenger Kids, we know that most young people have remained on the leading platforms. A “kiddie” version of the Internet is not what children under 13 want.

Whose responsibility is it to monitor children’s online content?

The most frequently proposed “fix” for the main platforms has been adding parental controls. Still, these controls often fail because parents are too often given the impossible task of monitoring multiple platforms, each with its own often confusing process and set of passwords. Even for parents with the time, expertise, and patience to extensively monitor their children’s platforms, undesirable content is still likely to slip through.

Many children, and especially those growing up in low-income households, are less likely to have their online environments tailored and protected by adults. In our recent report, we describe how children and adolescents growing up in lower-income households not only have less reliable devices and means of connecting to online spaces; they also tend to receive less supervision, support, and scaffolding in their online activities and report more spillover of negative online experiences. The lack of monitoring and support is important because we also find that these young people spend far more time online—ranging from 1.5 to 3 hours more per day than their peers across studies.

Parents shouldn’t (and in many cases cannot) shoulder the burden of ensuring digital spaces are healthy and safe for their kids on their own. Healthy online discourse and culture is a shared public responsibility – especially now when many children in the United States and elsewhere are spending as much, if not more, time online than in schools. While much of the conversation has been about restricting negative content – there are also opportunities to build digital spaces and platforms in ways that create learning opportunities.

What can be done?

As Big Tech faces the next round of scrutiny from Congress, the best interests and needs of children and adolescents – who represent 1 in 3 of internet users worldwide – need to be at the table.

Most online platforms are powered by algorithms optimized for profit, but it is time to ask ourselves: what would the online world look like if we factored children’s needs into these equations?

First, innovation is required to close widening gaps in education and learning. This will need to happen both in person when schools open, but the reality is that much of the “catch up” will happen online. Policy and platforms must be designed for kids and families who need it the most and who have paid the highest costs of this pandemic.

Second, social media companies need to stop pretending that their platforms do not reach children under 13. Most young adolescents are in these spaces, and the platforms are designed to be attractive to our children but are not yet designed in ways that optimize their development. The tech sector can and should play a role in providing services and a social safety net for our kids.

Third, youth may have the answers to how to best use social media and other digital spaces “for good,” in large part because they are already engaging in these practices. In our research as part of UC Irvine’s Connected Learning Lab, we found that many adolescents are using online spaces to seek help, offer support, and stay connected to friends. At a minimum, young people should be consulted and included in advisory board, consultant, and key stakeholders roles. Adults have been screaming about screen time for a long time, but it may be time to ask ourselves whether it is adults—and not kids—who struggle the most with social media.

In summary, as more physical spaces reopen, we want to ensure that our children’s virtual playgrounds and learning environments are supportive and safe. We currently – and should – invest an incredible amount of public time and money into the physical structures, programming,  and staff in schools. It is now time to invest in the digital spaces our children spend the bulk of their time growing up in as well.

Dr. Candice Odgers is a developmental psychologist who studies adolescent mental health and how digital technologies can be leveraged to understand and support wellbeing. She is the Co-Director of the Child and Brain Development Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a Professor of Psychological Science at University of California, Irvine, and a Visiting Professor at Duke University. 

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