Last week, many of the country’s leading scientists assembled in Orange County, CA for the first ever conference on children and screens. The concern that came up again and again during panels, breakout sessions and the conference's cocktail hour was kids' lack of empathy as a result of spending so much time in front of phones, tablets and computer screens.
MIT researcher and leading techno-skeptic Sherry Turkle, who just wrote a book on the deleterious effects of technology on society, invoked Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the seminal 1960s book about public misinformation, DDT and environmental ruin, to describe the role of technology today.
“We’re finding traces of a new Silent Spring,” said Turkle. “Now we face technology making a new kind of assault, and this time the assault is on empathy.”
In the past few years, a flurry of research on the human consequences of technology has turned the subject into a growing field of study. The Digital Media and Developing Minds conference, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, marks a sort of tipping point. Over the three days, conversation included research suggesting that virtual reality can create false memories in children, and how screen time influences learning and sleep. But of all the research into how screens affect developing brains, the impact on kids’ ability to develop empathy is among the most troubling to researchers. The science here is by no means conclusive, but early research has found things like, for example. that screens inhibit children’s ability to read emotions.
Turkle shared an anecdote from a middle school she studied where the principal had reported that students seemed unable to make real friendships.
“The kids weren’t emotionally developed,” Turkle said she concluded after talking to students. One particularly self-aware student told her that texting wasn't the problem, but what texting was doing to students' relationships with each other.
Another researcher in the audience asked Turkle what she thought of Hello Barbie, Mattel’s new artificial intelligence-infused doll due out the fall, that will be able to ask kids questions and remember their answers.
“Oh god!” she exclaimed.
“It’s a pretend empathy device,” Turkle said, explaining that toys like A.I. Barbie might encourage kids to make synthetic connections, instead of ones in real life.
“I think they’re toxic environments for children,” she said. “A lot of parents want their kids to talk to Siri. That needs to be watched very closely.”
Kids, the thinking here goes, learn about human interaction from face-to-face time, speaking to parents and having things modeled back to them. That’s why the American Pediatric Association recommends zero screen time for kids under two and just two hours a day for children up to 18. But in a time where every school district wants to outfit every student with an iPad, what happens when kids are spending so much time in front of the screen that time face-to-face is lagging?
Every scientist who took the stage offered their concern with a caveat: we still simply don’t know very much. There are some researchers after all who think screens could help with empathy, as with the use of iPads to help autistic children navigate emotional landscapes. There needs to be many large, long-term studies on children and screens before scientists have a good idea of how they truly impact young brains. So far, one researcher pointed out, the only studies that have been large enough and conducted over a long enough time to be conclusive have studied television habits and obesity. (Yes, kids watching a ton of T.V. get fat.)
Turkle, whose new book Reclaiming Conversation examines the lack of real life conversation in our digital era, offered the audience a prescription.
“Face-to-face conversation is how we develop empathy,” she said. “I see it as the talking cure.”