A thing I consistently hear about from parents of infants/toddlers/young children is how eerily silent they fall when you hand them any iPhone-like screen. Even kids who are pre-verbal intuitively understand the swiping and tapping actions; the opiate-like effect takes over, regardless of age. But of those parents, almost all feel some trepidation about zonking their kid out with a device, or the possibility that they are ingraining the same habits they themselves they feel guilty about before their child can even form memories.
Some parents, having seen other parents’ kids’ pupils dilate to the size of their eyeballs when they get their hands on an iDevice, strenuously avoid letting their kids even know what they are. I don’t envy the choice many parents seem to face several times a day between an irate, screaming baby and one who is contentedly massaging the brain matter in his soft head with an iPad.
This was what I thought of when I saw this viral video of a chimpanzee serenely using Instagram to stalk someone’s profile, precisely the way the rest of us do: thoughtfully scrolling, selecting a photo, reflecting upon it, not interacting with it in any way, swiping back, and continuing to scroll. This is almost certainly not the first time anyone has handed a chimp a smartphone, but who did this? Is this a good idea? Why give this chimp FOMO? Will he want to be an influencer now?
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The video reinforces a weird intuition I (we all) have that there is just something about how we take to this stuff so fluidly that screams we should be careful with it. Maybe we overascribe the negative effects of touchscreens according to our own experiences, which are complicated in lots of ways beyond using the device itself, and shouldn’t feel so conflicted about letting vulnerable parties play with them. I think more days than not about this blog from Paul Ford where he describes how his children will, unprompted, bring his iPhone to him because using it seems to make him happy. But it irritates me, and seems inherently alarming, that tech companies managed to access our very biology in such a direct way that babies and primates need no introduction to apps and touchscreens.
It’s interesting timing that today the World Health Organization announced it recommended severely limiting screen time for children under five years old while we are still studying its impacts. The move echoes the stance that many Silicon Valley scions who very precisely got us into this mess have, with zero trace of irony, affected over the last couple of years: tech is bad for small minds. (Worth noting, however, a disproportionate number of them are also anti-vaxxers.)
This news is so far getting a dim reception from parents who note many of the limitations of the “ideal” parenting picture the WHO paints are systemic, and screen time doesn’t stem from a lack of imagination or awareness that hands-on engaged playtime would probably be a superior activity. It’s a profound irony that the companies making money hand over fist from these devices are not recirculating the wealth in a way that would enable us to stop handing kids these devices, neither by paying taxes nor distributing the wealth to anyone but the very top executives. This play for dominance is probably working out better than those few masterminds could have ever dreamed.