The Tyranny of the Screens
With a dollar in my pocket, far behind on my Goodreads yearly reading goal, I took a chance on The Tyranny of Big Tech (TTOBT), Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s 2021 book. It is a short polemic, most likely anticipating a 2024 presidential run, depending on if Big Daddy Orange Man aka Donald Trump throws his toupee into the political winds again.
I wouldn’t have purchased at full price, but my local library, blessed to the coffers with donations and items removed from circulation, had it for $1. I couldn’t pass it up.
Only 156 pages, I consumed TTOBT in an afternoon.
Senator Hawley’s thesis is that Big Tech, represented by Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, is the spiritual heir of the robber barons of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan.
The Senator wants to score political points, so he’s pretty much mum on Big Tech’s services. He takes an aggressive stance that belies the issue’s complexity, following how most political discourse of the modern era is conducted.
The Senator makes some interesting points. I certainly learned about recent U.S. political history, especially how big business and politics often seem to find themselves in bed together, suggesting that new legislation and related government initiatives are needed to address these issues.
Still, I found myself pondering how much of the issues raised by Big Tech can be solved by personal action and early involvement from both family and educational systems. It may sell books and get you media gigs to rant against the new ‘robber barons’ but to what degree are the solutions right in front of us?
My generation, the millennials, were the first generation to have the Internet integrated into their lives at a young age. By the time we were teenagers, MySpace, Facebook, Google and others allowed us to have unprecedented data and access to human beings at our fingertips.
Since the advent of these technologies couldn’t be foreseen, it makes sense why some parents and schools were caught unawares. My Boomer father and Gen X mother didn’t grow up with and know everything about the Internet yet were fairly restrictive with regards to technology, so my sister and I were able to avoid some of the most addictive pitfalls of the Internet and Big Tech.
Over a decade later, social media and Big Tech are not going away. If anything, younger generations are brought under the sway of screens younger than we millennials were. I’m not sure if they are given enough healthy alternatives to combat this influence. Here and there some souls “sound the alarm” about such a high amount, but it seems to accepted by society for the most part.
As Senator Hawley concludes his novel, he talks about how he and his wife limit the screen time of their young children. Considering that children ages 8–12 spend 4–6 hours per day and teens spend up to 8 hours per day in front of screens, not including for educational purposes, this is an issue that requires immediate attention.
Naturally, parents or guardians should be the first line of defense against technology’s excesses.
I have a few suggestions as to how they can get their children away from screens:
1. Bring back the family meal! According to Dr. Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project, 30% of families eat together ‘regularly,’ despite the ritual’s many benefits, including better nutrition, academic performance, mental stability and strengthened relationships.
Now, we live in a different world than the 1950s in which there was one breadwinner outside the home and one homemaker. (Homemaking has incredible value despite not receiving economic compensation or enough societal respect) Furthermore, single parenthood has risen dramatically in the past few decades as well. Therefore, having a family meal, in whatever form the family takes, is most likely not feasible every night. Naturally, other family members, neighbors or friends could host the ‘family dinner’ since family is often chosen.
If a ‘family’ eats together 1–2 times per week with the children helping prepare, that’s 1–2 hours less of screen time each meal on average. Unhealthy eating will decrease, prompting more exercise and less addiction to sedentary solutions, such as streaming of video games.
2. Encourage physical activity, whether that be through playing with neighborhood friends, joining sports or rec teams and/or time in nature. My father relates tales of playing around his hometown until the sun went down. Even a couple of days per week could change a child’s perspective and keeps the devices off.
3. Limit their own screen time, being the example they wish their children to be. The average adult spends 44 years of their lives in front of a screen, between phones, laptops and televisions. Instead of flicking on Netflix or another streaming service, why not read a book, go for a walk or do something more interactive? Little incremental changes by the adults will be noticed by the children.
4. Monitor their children’s technological usage, limiting access until homework, chores or other tasks are completed. My iPhone has a simple feature called “screen time,” measuring how much I look at and use the device each day and week. The device does all the work, so parents/guardians can take a quick look and know if it’s time for the devices to go away. They can also make contests in which children are encouraged to read or spend time outside as much as they use a screen.
5. Force their children to do something else. One or two evenings after school, or perhaps a weekend a month, take away the devices once homework is completed and suggest alternative activities, whether that be reading, writing, playing outside, walking, etc. Per the saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” children will innovate with their entertainment when they must. What could they discover or create? The possibilities are vast.
Schools should be the second line of defense.
Again, I have a few suggestions for what they can do.
1. Mandatory courses about how to manage social media and technology, prompting review of their own habits. I am not sure what percentage of K-12 students already have these kind of courses, but it seems low. If parents aren’t or can’t be involved with their children’s screen use, schools can play that role by prompting introspection, alternative activities and social outlets. How can students question behaviors they implicitly consider as normal?
2. Balancing of technology based and non-technology based learning. As wonderful as technology is, there’s no substitute for the Socratic method, old fashioned brainpower, back and forth between students and teachers, among a host of techniques perfected over millennia of pedagogy. When possible, opt for closing the Chromebook or shutting off the TV.
3. Restoring recess to a daily or even twice daily activity. As many as 40% of schools have cut recess since the No Child Left Behind Act. Students are getting 30 minutes of physical activity or less. At least an hour is needed.
4. Afterschool programs which encourage socialization and physical activities. I get it, parents are busy, so afterschool supervision is often required. These programs should balance technological and non-technological activities. If a kid gets to expend energy before getting home, they are a bit easier to manage once they get home.
Once again, I am thankful for reading TTOBT. If nothing else, it got me to crystallize some thoughts on an important topic.
Although the dangers of Big Tech are real and some political action is needed, it’s important to remember how much parents and schools can keep children away from the danger of the screens. The tyranny of Big Tech can only take hold if we stand idly by, waiting for a magic wand to whisk away our problems.