Durable Human (2 book series)

13 Ways Out of The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma logo

A new movie on Netflix exposes the outsized influence social media and invasive technology have on our psyches, culture, and political systems.

The Social Dilemma showcases a slew of disgruntled former tech executives who tell of impenetrable algorithms, persuasive design, and extractive economic models that many of them helped create.

We see in actual news footage how false or misleading Facebook ads have swayed voters and elections. A dramatization of a typical American family depicts how the teenage son, despite his mother’s efforts, is insidiously lured into jeopardy by the contents of his phone.   

The movie is directed by Jeff Orlowski, a Stanford classmate of Tristan Harris, whom I first reported on here in 2015. That’s when Harris began to pull back the curtain on Big Tech’s predatory practices, including by his then-employer, Google. Ever since, Harris has doggedly spread his message through TED talks, tech design meetups, and U.S. Congressional hearings.

Here at The Durable Human, we believe that products designed for people should always serve—and never impede or supersede—ourselves as human beings. Harris and his Center for Humane Technology hold the same tenet. 

The Social Dilemma is a call to action, especially for the Last Generation, B.C., whom I call in How to Be a Durable Human, “the vanishing cohort of humans who grew up Before Cellphones.” Or, as Harris says in the movie, “the last generation of people that are gonna know what [life] was like before this illusion took place.”

After you watch The Social Dilemma, consider using your wisdom and movie discussion guide to talk it over with friends and family.

Facebook is miffed by the movie’s portrayal, claiming in this 7-point rebuttal that it “gives a distorted view of how social media platforms work” and doesn’t convey the current reality.

While the movie was in production, for instance, the company says it gave users more control of their time spent and data collected on the platform. With new Facebook safeguards, the rebuttal reads, “we removed over 22 million pieces of hate speech in the second quarter of 2020, over 94% of which we found before someone reported it.”   

While some improvements are being made, here are 13 ways to take charge of your digital presence:     

1. Read posts and articles before sharing. 

By pausing to review the content, you’re less likely to inadvertently spread false or misleading information.   

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12 Durable Tips for Better Distance Learning

Girl doing math on laptop

After a crushing disappointment, it became almost a miracle.

The broadcast journalism grad students from Syracuse University were supposed to spend the summer of 2020 in Washington, D.C. With media credentials dangling from their necks, they’d chase down interviews and comingle in our pop-up newsroom like network correspondents. Then, as for countless other students, their dreams were dashed. Because of the pandemic, the program would be all online.

But they rose to the challenge. Students pitched stories on Slack, did interviews on Zoom, and wrote scripts in Google Docs. We on the faculty fine-tuned the video and audio of their news reports with the powerful Frame.IO. We got the job done.  

Although I’ve been wary of digital fixes in the past, I’m the first to admit: our program was saved by technology.

As the world heads into the first full school year of the pandemic, digital teaching tools will be crucial, especially since more than half of U.S. K through 12 schools expect not to return to a physical classroom. “We have to demand that the internet is a public utility and that it is installed for families that don’t have access,” says Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Yet, last spring’s quick switch to online learning has largely been deemed a failure—and kids are still feeling the pain. Pediatricians across the U.S. report an unprecedented number of patients with anxiety and depression borne by disrupted school and home routines.  

So what’s a parent to do?

Luckily, we’ve learned from our mistakes. Based on the hard won experience served up on Zoom by boots-on-the-ground parents and education experts, here are 12 ways parents can help their kids do school better:

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Don’t Freak Out About Screen Time, But Don’t Check Out Either

Child holds up reed basket he is weaving

Way back B.C. (Before Coronavirus), a chief complaint from kids about their parents went something like this: “All my mom cares about is her phone” or “My Dad doesn’t really talk to me.” For years, too many of us have been in a state of continuous partial attention. Even when someone was sobbing in front of us, we’d have one eye on our phones. But now, confined in the chaos, we have an opportunity: for a parenting Do Over.

First off, we need to know the difference between Us and Them—in mind and in body.

Our kids are worried and anxious, just as we are. But we’re the ones in charge—their Reassurers-in-Chief. They need to know we’re there for them, no matter what.

“Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Ask how they’re feeling,” advised Dr. Robin Gurwitch, psychiatry professor at Duke University School of Medicine, on a call with reporters about the virus and mental health. “That way, you can get a sense of their understanding, validate their feelings, and correct misperceptions.”

To ensure lots of reassuring face-to-face contact and hugs, we can take a tip from the helpful American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Use Planner: establish zones in the household and times of day (at least at meals and bedtime) that are free from distractions such as personal technology—theirs and ours.

When reading Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won (NYT March 31, 2020) by reporter Nellie Bowles, we need to consider the source: an adult with a fully formed brain.

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Gabb Wireless Phone Answers Parents’ Prayers

black touch-screen wireless phone for kids

At last, there’s a sleek phone made just for kids—and it can’t access the Internet. “It’s not that it’s blocked. It really doesn’t exist on the phone,” says Stephen Dalby, founder of Gabb Wireless. “On our cellular network, the only thing you will find will be safe phones for kids.”

Being a dad launched Dalby on his design journey. “I had to get a phone for my son and I just didn’t feel comfortable with the options that were out there.”

Gabb Basic offers plenty for a child to manage as a first step toward a full-fledged smartphone. Kids can call, text, and use the calendar, alarm and calculator apps. But they can’t play games, use social media, shop in app stores, send picture messages, or group text.

Unlimited calls and texts on the Gabb Wireless 4G LTE nationwide network are $19.99 a month, with no long term contract. The phone itself costs $79.99, as opposed to $699.99 for an iPhone 11.

Smartphones were made for adults, otherwise parental controls would not be needed. As “dumb” phones disappeared from store shelves and smartphone ads ramped up, parents wanting to give a cellphone had no alternative. They would have to buy the mobile phone equivalent of a Maserati when all their child needed was a bike with training wheels.

This infuriates Darby. “When it comes to physical harm, we don’t give 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds chain saws. That seems obvious because we’re talking about physical harm. But when we talk about mental harm, emotional harm, spiritual harm, what we’re dealing with right now is an absolute train wreck.”

The destruction is rampant. Since 2011—around the time when so many kids began to use smartphones and their attendant social media apps—almost 3 of every 5 12- to 17-year-olds has developed symptoms of depression. Smart device content is made so engaging, kids move less, so they can gain weight and lose core strength. During formerly raucous school lunch periods, students sit silently—and separately—engrossed in their phones.

As smart devices were doled out to kids at younger and younger ages, Childhood itself came under siege. “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle,” says Kyung Hee Kim, an education professor who studies child creativity at the College of William and Mary.

That’s why I consider Gabb—and other smartphone alternatives such as the one-button Relay and new breed of kids’ digital watches—world-changing. The designs put parents back in the driver’s seat and the chance to do it right this time. They can introduce their kids to the digital world as they see fit in a sensible, developmentally-appropriate, step-wise fashion.

Yet, even the relatively simple Gabb is powerful enough to knock a kid off balance. A mom who gave one to her daughter says she gets “sucked into her phone” and resists getting off.  

So, parents aren’t off the hook. Just as they teach their kids to eat right, they must set boundaries and teach healthy tech habits that keep kids durable in body and mind, such as to charge devices outside the bedroom at night.  

Giving a child that first mobile device continues to have more strings attached than the most sought-after pair of sneakers. Parents must carefully consider their child’s readiness and the child herself should show she’s responsible enough to incorporate a powerful object of technology into a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

But as we enter a new decade, parents can breathe easier that their kids can have a safer first user experience. As Stephen Darby says. “Now they have the option, whereas before they just didn’t.”

~~~

I write this 13 years to the day iPhone was released. Tony Fadell, who helped create both iPod and iPhone, quotes former co-worker Steve Jobs’ admonition:

Don’t overschedule your kids. Make sure they get bored so they discover who they are and what they like.

Indeed, as I wonder in The Durable Human Manifesto, what might have happened if Steve Jobs were born today: would the flicker of a parent’s smartphone usurp his wandering thoughts?

He would not want anyone’s iPhone to get in a child’s way.  

~~~

Download a free PDF of the quick-read The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World.

About the author: DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media adjunct professor. She wrote How to Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital World Through the Power of Self-Design and hosts the parenting education platform, Durable U. Her work has informed millions on outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, Readers Digest, Tech Republic, Thrive Global, and on the TEDx stage.

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