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High-Tech CEOs who are Low-Tech Parents: What Are They Telling Us?



Jim Schroeder - published on 11/06/14

Curbing kids' enthusiasm for endless screen time

"Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent" appeared in the "New York Times" last September. It’s not the first Times article showing a preference of high-tech parents for low-tech education/parenting. The author, Nick Bilton, recalled a conversation he’d had with Steve Jobs years earlier — after Jobs had blasted him for writing about a flaw with the iPad.

Hoping to escape an uncomfortable exchange, Bilton tried to change the subject by asking Jobs: “So, your kids must love the iPad?” The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” 

Bilton admitted he was stunned at the time, but since then he noticed a very curious trend from talking to many top executives in the media and technology world. Their approach to parenting was not what he expected. Many of their homes and their daily routines looked nothing like the technological fantasy world he had envisioned. Over and over, he found that many high-tech parents significantly limited screen time (and some even allowed none during the school week), had clear shut-off times at night, and promoted the use of regular books (opposed to the screen versions) in the home. Many others did not allow their teens to engage in social networking and would not permit their offspring to have smart phones before high school. Many of their kids accused their high-tech parents of being unfairly strict and out-of-date in comparison to the indulgent parents of their peers.

The most hard and fast restriction among all tech parents surveyed: “… rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” explained Chris Anderson, chief executive of 3D Robotics.

This past year, a parallel story was leaked by CNBC: "McDonald’s Employee Site Bashes Fast Food." The article told the tale of a series of posts a third party found on a McDonald’s corporate website. They cautioned against the dangers of eating fast food, and why it is important to either abstain from, or at least significantly limit one’s intake of, these foods. The posts emphasized that “fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt and may put people at risk for becoming overweight" and are an “unhealthy choice.”

What do the high-tech parents and the employees of Mickey-D’s have in common?

For decades McDonald’s has spent billions of dollars marketing to kids (beyond ad expenditures targeting adults) through Happy Meals and the "prize" inside, through the menu and the playgrounds, all the while knowing that the foods they are marketing  despite their recent contention of healthy options (see, e.g., "How to Make Oatmeal Wrong")  are not good for anyone. For a variety of reasons, including unhealthy diet and sedentary screen time, the United States now has a pediatric obesity crisis.

If you’ve flipped on a television lately, you’ve likely seen endless commercials that are a variation on some good-looking, blue-eyed boy staring intently at a screen whose content is taking him to amazing places and far-away lands, captivating him now and expanding his mind for years to come. Today, our kids are averaging eight or more hours daily of technology use (excluding their multi-tasking).

What are executives in the high-tech world trying to tell us?

1. We are spending billions of dollars annually to market our products to you, your kids and their schools, for even the youngest ages. And it is working! We are getting rich and expanding our production, our products and our services, because you  as parents, teachers and schoool administrators

 have bought into the notion that your kids are going to be left in the dark if they are not tuned in and linked in to all the new platforms and software available.

2. Meanwhile, when it comes to our own children, we recognize that there are serious risks in exposing them to this technology during their childhood and adolescent years. No matter what technology may offer, we feel that it is critical to provide an environment for them that will foster basic skills — in socialization, emotional regulation, critical thinking, delayed gratification, and sustaining attention — which will be very difficult to develop after they become adults.

3. Therefore, despite the fact that we are marketing to your kids and their schools, and making a ton of money from their consumption of technology, we feel that many of our own products, or certain patterns of usage, are not good for our offspring, now or for the rest of their lives.

As parents we are 100% responsible for the choices we make in what food we provide to our kids and what limits we place on the type and extent of their technology use, but our job is made a lot tougher by the billions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing that pressure parents and our children to adopt harmful beahviors. One cannot over-estimate the power of media and marketing to influence our decisions. (For more on kids and technology use and the power of marketing, please see the January 2013 edition of Just Thinking.

We don’t like to think that we are swayed by marketing, but of course we are. Apple didn’t spend over one billion dollars  – yes, a billion — and Microsoft 1.6 billion in 2012 just on a hope and a prayer that marketing might increase sales. They know what they are doing and McDonald’s executives know what they are doing.

But do we know what we are doing to our children?

Jim Schroeder is a pediatric psychologist at St. Mary’s Center for Children in Evansville, Indiana. He resides there with his wife, Amy, and their six children. He received a BS from Ball State University and graduated with a PhD in clinical psychology from Saint Louis University in 2005. He completed an internship at the University of Louisville School of Medicine / Kosair Children’s Hospital and did his postdoctoral fellowship at St. Louis Children’s Hospital through the Washington University School of Medicine. He also writes a monthly column titled "Just Thinking" ( designed to inform, educate, and motivate parents and providers in applying pertinent research in meaningful, practical ways.

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