When Tech Titans Become Parents

January 9, 2019

A funny thing happened when the engineering gurus of Silicon Valley started having kids: a flood of confessionals and op-ed articles revealing exactly how our digital sausage is made. The fact that most of their own kids are tech vegans has many of us considering similar pediatric diets.

by Kristina Stewart Ward

Tristan Harris, the former Design Ethicist at Google, is widely cited among the earliest Silicon Valley insiders to pull back the curtain on the inner workings of how technology impacts our lives and the lives of our kids. In the process, he created a think tank: the Center for Human Technology. “Most parents equate kids’ use of technology to our own use of the telephone,” he explains, “but what this misses is that our telephone didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the phone who were redesigning it every day to be more and more persuasive.”

“This is a war for attention,” he continues. “The race to get, and keep, children’s attention ends up training them to replace their self-worth with ‘likes,’ encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out. Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship. Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self-worth. Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities. YouTube keeps us hooked by autoplaying the next video within seconds—even if it eats into our sleep.”

If these unflinching revelations make you suspect that Tristan has become an outcast in the Silicon Valley world where he made his name, you should take a look at his think tank’s board of directors, a vaulted list includes the co-founders of Facebook, Siri, Lyft and Pinterest (Chris Hughes, Tom Gruber, John Zimmer and Evan Sharp.) They’re in good company when it comes to digital demi-gods getting candid on what screens are doing to our (and their) kids.  

Tony Fadell co-invented the iPhone and he offers: “We’ve unleashed a beast, and there are a lot of unintended consequences. I don’t think we yet have the tools we need to understand what we do every day; we don’t have enough data about our habits on our devices.” Fadell’s former boss, the late Steve Jobs, famously didn’t let his kids use iPads, admitting on the record, “We limit the amount of time our kids spend on devices.” His successor, Apple CEO Tim Cook said last year: “I don’t believe in overuse; I’m not a person that says we’ve achieved success if you’re using it all the time. I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things I won’t allow; I don’t want him on a social network.”

The race to get and keep children’s attention ends up training them to replace their self-worth with ‘likes,’ encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.

Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former VP of User Growth doesn’t mince words when it comes to gaming, social media, and devices in general: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works, but I can control my decisions, which is that I don’t use that sh%t. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that sh%t.”

Melinda Gates: I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media. Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how these devices would transform the way my kids grew up—and the way I wanted to parent. I’m still trying to catch up. The pace of change is what amazes me most. Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complication and confusions, their screens can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, exercising self-control.”

Chris Anderson was the Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine for 13 years before founding 3D Robotics. When describing tech as it relates to his five kids he says: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine. We thought we could control it, and this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand. I didn’t know what we were doing to their brains until I started to observe the symptoms and the consequences.” He continues, “This is scar tissue talking. We’ve made every mistake in the book, and I think we got it wrong with some of our kids. We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction, and there were some lost years.”

The famously swashbuckling Sean Parker from early Facebook days doesn’t hold back: “It’s a social validation feedback loop. You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. I think the inventors, creators….we understood this, consciously. And we did it anyway. God only knows what it’s doing to our kids’ brains. The thought process was: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content.”

John Lilly the former CEO of Mozilla, tried to describe the machinations behind social media and gaming to his 13-year-old son, to explain that he’s being manipulated by the people who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way—I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling. And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

So, if there is anything to be made of this range of hand-wringing confessionals from tech parents as they integrate devices into their own homes with their own children, it’s likely to be this: Silicon Valley big shots are a lot like the rest of us, recognizing the consequences of tech in real time and struggling to come up with solutions in real time, just like we do in our own homes.

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