Many technologies available to children are owned by corporations, whose primary interest is in making money to the exclusion of everything else, in particular children’s wellbeing. Will the Metaverse make children more addicted to tech?
(This is an excerpt of our Q&A with Dr. Susan Linn. Link here.)
When The New York Times reviewed Susan Linn’s most recent book, Who’s Raising the Kids? – Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children, Prof. Zephyr Teachout endorsed Linn’s basic approach, noting that:
“Play is profound; it is an activity that fosters growth and is essential to the development of empathy. Its power lies in its unstructured nature. . . Tech companies destroy such play and replace it with device addiction, a simulacrum and false promise of connection that does none of the developmental work of the real thing.”
During our interview with Dr. Linn’s, we explored some practical consequences of her ideas.
The Metaverse and Children
ChildsPlay Intl. (CPI): I’m assuming that you probably . . . are opposed to Mark Zuckerberg’s proposed metaverse because maybe people will flock to it. It’s the easy way out. They don’t have to reflect; they just disappear into something that completely does everything for them.
Susan Linn (SL): Well, I was just reading an article today about all these brands that are creating activities for children in the metaverse. And one of the things that really worries me about the Metaverse is who owns it?
One of the tragedies of all screens all the time, is that basically everything that children do on a screen (not absolutely everything, but most things) is mediated by corporations. So, that’s really troubling. Even sandbox games, they’re called that because they’re games that you can play online with other people — they’re like the sandbox but it’s not a real sandbox. It’s designed to promote competition. And competition can be a part of play as long as it doesn’t completely take over. But it’s to promote envy and to monetize envy in order to sell things.
I think that the real problem with technologies today is they’re incredibly powerful, and they’re incredible tools for persuasion. And they’re owned by corporations, whose primary interest is in making money to the exclusion of everything else, in particular children’s wellbeing.
Can We Recover From The Addiction To The Internet?
CPI: As a person grows up, all their life they’ve been attached to screens, which you argue create an imitative, consumerist personality. How can a person who’s grown up that way ever redress the loss?
SL: Children’s brains are growing and developing, and the things that children do and don’t do really affect the actual architecture of the brain. And the more you do something, the more those synapses get connected and habits and behaviors are formed in childhood. I think that that can be changed, but I don’t think that it’s easy. One thing that has to happen is that people have to want to change. In Who’s Raising the Kids? I talk about the way that screens and commercial culture influence children’s values, their relationships and their learning. So early childhood experiences are incredibly important. Are they the end? No, but I think it’s harder to make changes to things that have become habits and a way of being in the world.
How do you raise people’s awareness?
CPI: How do you raise people’s awareness of this, the fact that they may have lost something that they don’t even know that they want or need?
SL: There’s a lot of advocacy now, limiting screen time even for young adults. And some of that advocacy is coming from young adults themselves who are advocating for media Sabbaths, and really trying to pull themselves away from social media and that kind of thing. I haven’t heard people talk about it in terms of creativity. What they talk about it is in terms of loneliness and depression, and a life of all screens all the time, and a lack of human connection. And one of the things that I do worry about a lot, with the power of the tech industry, is that the technology comes between people.
It comes between parents and children. For instance, parents who read eBooks to kids, the conversations that they have (especially if they’re eBooks that have a lot of bells and whistles) are not conversations that promote literacy. They’re conversations about “do this,” “push that,” that kind of thing. And even when parents are reading eBooks that don’t have those flourishes, they’re less apt to cuddle with kids when they’re reading eBooks, and there’s a struggle for the screen. And these devices are made for one person to use. So, it’s not like sitting in a chair with a picture book and having your arm around a child or a child sitting on your lap. It doesn’t seem to be working that way.
It’s Not A Sign Of Amazing Intelligence That A Child Can Use An iPad.
CPI: Do you think there’s a balance [between play and formal instruction], and does that change with time as children grow older?
SL: The push from the tech industry is that kids need to start with devices younger because they need to learn how to use them in order to get a job. But, that’s ridiculous because the devices, the technology, is going to change. I mean, kids learning to swipe and tap and make things bigger on a smartphone or on a tablet, by the time they’re adults it’s all going to be voice anyway. What the tech industry says, or people in the tech industry say, [is] they make these devices for people who are brain dead. It’s not a sign of amazing intelligence that a child can use an iPad. But people think that it is. I think that’s what Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff talk about — that kids are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up, that they’re active learners. Kids learn when they play with water. You learn which way it flows, playing with blocks. You learn about gravity, or even math. So, what we want, and I think what kids need to be successful, is to be interested in the world and to be curious about the world, and to feel competent in generating ideas. That comes from play. For me, I think about D.W. Winnicott and what he said that it’s in play. and maybe only in play that we can really be ourselves. He equated play with creativity, and he equated play and creativity with health.
Susan Linn is also an award-winning ventriloquist. Here with Audrey Duck.
Follow Dr. Susan Linn on Twitter