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Former Google Design Ethicist: Relying on Big Tech in Schools Is a ‘Race to the Bottom’

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 7, 2018

Tristan Harris, Founder of Center for Humane Technology, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Researchers, filmmakers, teachers, policymakers and technologists gathered in Washington, D.C. this morning to continue the growing national conversation on the problems and solutions to technology addiction and the consequences it has on young minds.

Common Sense Media recently partnered with the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit which supports the development of ethical technological tools, to lay out a fierce call for regulation and awareness about the health issues surrounding tech addiction.

Tristan Harris, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

“This is an arms race for attention,” says James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides media reviews for schools, about the way big technology companies like Apple and Facebook have designed their products.

The doctors, researchers, policymakers and technologists that took the stage didn’t mince words in conveying that, if left unregulated, technology could pose an existential threat to society—and kids in particular.

“I see this as game over unless we change course,” says Tristan Harris, a former ethicist at Google who founded the Center for Humane Technology. “Supercomputers play chess against your mind to extract the attention out of you. The stock price has to keep going up, so they point it at your kid and start extracting the attention out of them. You don’t want an extraction-based economy powered by AI, playing chess against people’s minds. We cannot win in that world.”

Audience at Common Sense event, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Big Tech’s Race to the Bottom

In an interview with EdSurge, Harris noted that the focus of their campaign started with children because they were the most vulnerable population. He says that particularly children in schools had little agency over whether they opted into or out of a technology platform because of pressure from both peers and educators handing out assignments.

“Teachers are trying to use the best tools they can to engage with students. I know there are many classrooms that say, ‘Our kids are on Facebook, let’s reach them there’,” says Harris. “Then you don’t have a choice, you have to use Facebook.”

Harris’ concern with educators relying on platforms such as Google Classroom and Facebook for assignments is that the platforms are designed with different goals from those of educators.

“Is Facebook designed to maximize your concentration and focus on the goals that you care about? No,” says Harris. “How frequent and interruptive the [notifications are], the better it is for them because their business model is attention. The false sense of urgency, all of those dynamics inside this one environment, make it unhealthy and incompatible with concentration and focus on your goals.”

Harris says teachers who use technology platforms because students are on them are “racing to the bottom.” To illustrate the point, he cites an analogy from the food industry, where manufacturers were focused on selling food at increasingly cheaper prices until stiff competition emerged from higher-quality retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

“We haven’t yet invented the Whole Foods or the Jane Jacobs of social media, who are thinking about better ways to organize the digital environment we live in,” says Harris.

Harris is hopeful, however, that educators who tap resources that have been vetted by organizations such as Common Sense Media,can learn to use technology more effectively.

To support educators making such decisions, Common Sense Media is taking their “Truth about Tech” campaign to schools through an upgraded version of their current Digital Citizenship curriculum. The new updates will include more information on subjects such as:

  • creating a healthy media balance and digital wellness;
  • concerns about the rise of hate speech in schools that go beyond talking about cyberbullying; and
  • fake news, media literacy and curating content.

To execute this, Common Sense is planning a major awareness campaign directed at parents, teachers and students across the 55,000 schools that currently use its curriculum.

“This has to be a day-to-day conversation, and it has to be sustainable,” says Linda Burch, chief strategy officer at Common Sense. Each year, starting in kindergarten, teachers and parents will be encouraged to think more intentionally about technology use and consider what she calls “the humane elements of it.”

Addressing students’ health and well-being starts with helping them develop positive relationships with devices, says Burch, who adds that many children today are worried that if they don’t react to notifications or respond to friends online immediately, they will be left out or damage relationships. This over-dependence on technology is problematic for Burch.

“How do you have a social dialog within a classroom about what defines friendship?” she says. “When do you need to respond? How do you define for yourself what is healthy for you? How does the group as a whole create a code of behavior so nobody is left out?”

Those are questions that she hopes the new curriculum, which will be available next fall for grades 3 through 5, will answer. The curriculum will be available for all grades, K-12, at a later date.

What Does ‘Tech Addiction’ Mean?

Most of the work being done by Common Sense and the Center for Humane Technology hinges on the recognition of technology addiction itself, a topic that is still being debated.

In a recent NPR report, writer Anya Kamenetz notes that clinicians are debating whether technology overuse is best categorized as a bad habit, a symptom of other mental struggles (such as depression or anxiety), or as an addiction.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the American Academy of Pediatrics, notes that although she’s seen solid evidence linking heavy media usage to problems with sleep and obesity, she hesitated to call the usage “addiction.”

Chelsea Clinton, Dr. Jenny Radesky and Dr. Robert Lustig, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

“From the early childhood perspective, we don’t use the word ‘addiction’ clinically or in research because it is early childhood,” says Radesky. “We use the idea of ‘functional impairment,’ when media use is getting so heavy that the content is influencing a child’s behavior.”

She says when media use gets in the way of sleep, play or responsibilities and activities at home, it can be harmful to children, but those practices can be curbed by adults.

“Parents, some of them, like to use the word ‘addiction’ because it helps them feel like this is a problem, and some of them get a little scared by that idea,” says Radesky, noting that the term should be used in whatever way is most productive for the family.

Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist who studies hormones at the University of Southern California, disagrees. He believes parents have to see the overuse of technology as an addiction.

“Any force in our lives, whether it is substance or behavior that is ubiquitous, toxic, abused and has negative impacts on society requires some form of societal intervention,” says Lusting. “Technology addiction clearly meets the bar.”

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