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. 

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!

Reading Apps for Kids

YouTube Reads Aloud- Reading Apps for Kids?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My granddaughters were staying overnight and I found out that they like an app on their dad’s phone before they go to bed. The app reads stories to them in the evening before they fall asleep. So, I downloaded the app (called Calm) to my own phone and they were happy. But, do you think that children this age (3 and 5) should go to sleep with apps that read to them?   Myra, Berkeley

Dear Myra: It sounds like you are a thoroughly modern grandmother as you downloaded the reading app for kids, but I don’t think you need to be. As you intuit, it’s wholesome to read bedtime stories from books, not phones.  Today’s busy frazzled parents might prefer than an app do that, but IMHO you should question the routine. By the way, the app you downloaded has many features just for adults.

But back to the grandkids. They and their parents are missing out on a wonderful time to come together as a family and share. Reading aloud is a great opportunity for families to wind down the day and indulge together in a flight of fantasy, historical fiction, nature or other literary genres.  Since the girls are close in age, they might like the same material. Young children get to cuddle with Dad or Mom and learn that reading is entertaining.

The Spoken Word:

There’s an academic plus to this: hearing words spoken together will increase the girl’s vocabulary. Since the 1980’s researchers have studied what happens if more of children’s first language learning take place in front of the television, and less from adults that read aloud. The TV  raised kids suffer a large “vocabulary deficit. ” In school, no Head-Start programs can catch them up. Meanwhile, the children who are read to also become better writers. They are more proficient with sentence structure and grammar.

Regarding the Calm story, podcasts and phone apps seem like radio a when it comes to learning new words.  Unlike watching on TV, listeners have to use their imagination to fill in the details. Perhaps they pay more attention. Still, reading from a book is the most expansive. Kids can control the pace of the story- speed up, slow down, or pause. And, adults provide soothing cues to help interpret scary or sad stories. The classic narrative about this is Bambi, the deer who loses his mother. 

Sleep Interference:

There is one further reason why I would encourage your son and daughter-in-law to limit reading apps for kids at bedtime. Research is linking difficulty falling asleep and adverse health outcomes with using smartphones before bed. It’s thought that the bluelight from the phone or other factors (unknown) interfere with melatonin production. Children are thought to be even more susceptible to these sleep disruptions.

Read Forward:

There are plenty of  good children’s books out there, and they are free for you to browse and borrow from your local library. Also, I recommend this classic on children’s reading. Get a copy for your kids and grandkids, so that they can cultivate a read aloud habit. The author wrote the book as he investigated why SAT scores were falling since the 1970’s and why contemporary kids were stressed, sleep-deprived, and anxious. He was critical of the ‘No Child Left Behind Curriculum’.

My take-away is that if do not wish to leave your grandchildren behind, then ‘read forward’ with them. Since your granddaughters are only three and five years old, you have many years to grow that habit together.