Did Tech Founders Not Allow Phones?

Maybe it’s B.S.? Before Smartphones?

A cartoon of a man with a laptop sitting on a bigger computer. He is hard at work. We ask whether tech founders allowed their kids to have phones.
Did Tech Founders Not Allow Phones?

Dear Ms Smartphone: Is it true that the tech founders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not allow their children to have phones? I belong to a parents’ group that meets online and they thought this was important. But, I was wondering if it is true. Maybe it’s an urban legend?! Jessi, Oakland

Dear Jessi: First, my best effort to do some fact-checking with Google. I tracked down the attribution by Bill Gates to a Reuters story in 2007. The family limited game playing for their oldest daughter to 45 minutes a day and 1 hour on weekends. Gates additionally decreed that his children had to wait until they were age 14 to get a phone.  For Steve Jobs, the attribution appears in a 2010 or 2011 interview published by the New York Times in 2014. When the reporter asked him about the launch of the Ipad in 2010 Jobs said his children had not used it.  “ We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”  I add an essential qualification. When Gates and Jobs had young children, kids were gaming on laptops or consoles. They were not using smartphones. 

When you fast forward twelve years it’s a new ballgame. Today, smartphones reach down to the youngest age group. And, phones are portable, seemingly tethered to a child as they travel outside the home. Social media, which has blossomed since 2012, is remarkably different. Gaining ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ on social media can become compulsive. For many teens, especially girls, social media appears to be tied to self-image, mental health, and well-being.  Both teens and their parents complain that social media becomes “addictive.”

Kids, Teens, Media:

Your parenting group may want to note two legislative bills proposed by your local lawmakers in California.*  AB2408 and AB2273 try to reign in social media companies, websites, and apps that draw in children. The first bill (AB2408) would allow parents to sue social media platforms if their children become addicted- if they are harmed physically, mentally, emotionally or developmentally. The second bill (AB2273)  picks up regulation that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is supposed to reign in and tighten online privacy, data sharing, and tracking. 

Behavioral addictions which hospitalize people or render them incapable of living vaguely normal lives, are relatively rare. That’s according to author and NYU professor Adam Alter. But moderate behavioral addictions, like the ones targeted in AB2408, are more common. When a teen signs up for a social media account they can inadvertently drop into a swirling wormhole as they seek out new followers and likes. Or, they might compare themselves to an artificial and impossible body type and self-image. Social media may also divide their time and energy and draw them out of other activities. The sense I get of AB2408 is that behavioral addictions are for real. They make us less effective at work and play, and diminish our interactions with other people…they degrade our well being.

Code Up:

But, back to your original question. The children of Jobs and Gates are now adults so it would be notable if a reporter could seek them out and get the full story about their tech use. Meanwhile, here’s a less publicized  headline that Bill Gates made about children and technology.  In a 2013 video, called “What Most Schools Don’t Teach”  Gates says he got his first computer when he was 13 and taught himself to code. Other tech executives join in- Zuckerberg,  Dorsey, Houston, etc.  They inspired a non-profit called  Code.org that advocates for computer science classes in U.S. school curricula. When kids code their own programs and grasp the role of pre-programmed formulae they are less likely to be addicted and stay more savvy and informed on social media.

* The bills are sponsored by Assembly Member Buffy Wicks of Oakland and Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo. 

Vintage Ipods Have Value?

This old Ipod. Is it about liking vintage or something more?

Eight different Ipod nano devices, from different type periods. Picture is from Ebay. Do these vintage ipods have value?
Do Vintage Ipods Have Value? Image: Ebay

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When my husband heard last week that Apple was discontinuing the Ipod he went out and bought 2 more of them. When I asked why he needed more Ipods he was sort of vague. He said he wanted them for parts, and etcetera. It’s the etcetera that I do not understand. Do vintage ipods have value? Zoe, Mill Valley

Dear Zoe: You didn’t mention whether your husband still uses the Ipods to play music and video games or whether he is betting that the prices will increase as the devices become scarce! But you have to respect his love affair with this device. Perhaps it’s the remembrance of those dancing silhouettes! In many ways, not just financial ones, these vintage ipods have value.

Beware… Swiss Army Knives

Like your husband, I see a need for these devices, or similar ones. Today’s  smartphones are  Swiss Army Knives and that’s all good, until it is not (for example, taking them on airplanes)! Phone features range from picture-taking to the digital measuring tape. That’s useful, particularly if you have small pockets but we all need a degree of separation. For young kids getting online I advocate a provisional phone- one that has stripped down features so that they do not spend excess time on it and shun other activities. As for adults, it’s still a good idea to keep a flashlight in your car, a notebook by your bed table, and a clip-on pedometer for exercise. 

If you don’t seek out this degree of separation, you will not be able to turn your phone off, literally.  It’s now a  throwback to watch a yoga routine or listen to an album without extra technology. Or, take a long hike. The presence of a phone is a constant reminder that we are interruptible.  

Valued Past…

But, here is the etcetera. For your husband, it might be an appreciation for  Apple  technology and how far it has come. Steve Jobs wanted the Ipod, which he introduced in 2001, to propel his company in two ways. He needed to sell computers. Microsoft had a 90 percent market share but they did not have music.  Customers wanted a MacIntosh computer to browse the music library, create a playlist and transfer songs. Meanwhile, Apple was already working on the smartphone, and the architecture for it evolved from the polished, well packaged,  pocket-sized IPod. 

If your husband is collecting Ipods because he is sentimental about the technology, there are fans that plan to keep the technology alive and move it one-step further. They swap out the hard drives and use a Sim card to load more music. And, yes, vintage Ipods are collectibles. As of today, there were several posted on Ebay in the four to five hundred dollar range, and one brand new 5GB first generation model with a $23,000 sticker!

More Value Propositions…

But, if your husband is either a lawyer, or a musician, perhaps there is a different reason for his collection. The Ipod upended the music industry, much as the Beatles upended 60’s music.  When the Ipod began subscribers could download a single song for 99 cents, or they could copy it from elsewhere. The commercial slogan approved by Steve Jobs “Rip, Mix, Burn” –seemed to endorse the free, pirating of music. What personally struck me is how the iPod changed music connoisseurship, in the name of portability. Before the device, afficiendos preferred the expansive, refined sound-quality of hand-hone speakers, not  small, tinny ones.

Today, music fans might listen over Apple’s smart speakers. And, many subscribe to a subscription service, like Spotify, instead of buying individual tracks from the Apple store.  On the road, they use the smartphone, linking it to Apple CarPlay. The music has changed but it has not stopped.  Perhaps the et cetera you mention is indeed that vintage Ipods have $$ value. Or, it might be nostalgia for how we used to download our playlists, an appreciation for functional purity, as well as the bet that this tiny device is a big collectible.

No Screen Time Until Two?

A young baby looking at at Ipad (stock photo)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My oldest sister had a baby boy eight years ago and her baby doctor told her no screen time until two years of age. I had a girl last year, and was surprised when the same doctor (we both go to her) said that the guidelines had changed. Her professional society is saying it is OK now for younger babies to have screen time. My sister and I compared notes and wonder why they changed because babies are babies. Sydney, Weston

Dear Sydney:  You are lucky that your pediatrician took the time to talk about media time with you. I once read that just fifteen percent of parents said that their pediatrician discuss media use yet Pew polling in 2020 finds that 61% of parents say they depend on doctors for screen advice!  The professional society you are referring to is the American Academy of Pediatricians (APA).  They have a long history of trying to explore the role of screen time, publishing research, and  tinkering with the recommendations.

The 2016 guidelines suggested that children under 18 months stay unplugged. Prior to that they recommended no screen time until age 2.

18 and under.

There is a long form that accompanies  the 2016 APA reset- that’s what your pediatrician was referencing. The Academy recommends that parents stay involved with their children’s media use and set boundaries, that they carefully select content, and encourage co-watching. If the APA lowered the age, then they upped the stakes for parental involvement. There was one exception: the 2016 guidelines  said it was OK for kids under 18 months to engage in video chatting. Presumably that was for keeping up with long distance grandparents and family, or, cynically,  did they anticipate the burgeoning growth of pediatric visits  and  telemedicine?

Of course, children have not changed in the past eight years, nor do they grow up faster- so why did the APA  change? I will try to update this when I have more direct knowledge and interviews. The best I can tell is that the Academy needed to keep pace with modern trends.  Parents wanted guidance, and the professionals recognized that they did not have  a robust body of research on the effects of new digital media. Between 2000 and 2016 there was a proliferation of technology.Streaming media opened viewing up 24/7 and released the content from FCC oversight. 

Head Starts:

Not surprisingly, time spent in front of screens exploded for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers over the same time period. Today, ninety percent of young children use a handheld electronic device by the age of one, and in some cases, when they are only a few months old. A British study in 2017 found that 10% of children ages 3-4 had their own tablet and 53% of these were online, for nearly 9 hours a week. During covid these rates skyrocketed as preschools closed and more parents worked from home.

So, to address your question, the APA wanted to keep up with the trends and stay relevant to parents. If you and your sister  want help sorting out the digital guidelines you can go to Commonsense Media. This parent centric site reviews content options, summarize the state-of-the-research., and more.

By the way, the APA guidelines do not say ‘No’ to  media and TV-  they simply discourage its use. Surprisingly, the concerns are less about content and more often about the time that watching TV or screens displaces.  Keep in mind that for every hour of television that a child younger than 2 years watches alone, he or she will spend an additional 60 minutes less time per day interacting with a parent or sibling, and engaging in other types of play. The issue is that television displaces more developmentally valuable activities that stimulate cognitive growth and motor skills. Research continues to find correlation (not causality) between early television viewing and developmental problems. BTW, many families have the TV on at least six hours a day as background noise- that counts too!