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.
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.