Big Tech Needs to Treat Our Children Better
By Jennifer Carolan
I invest in education technology, but decades before I knew what a venture capitalist was, I was a history teacher in a small town in America’s heartland where I started my school’s first “Internet club.” I’m a believer in the merits of technology and have written about how technology can be used to broaden access to knowledge, connect people and even improve empathy.
But last year marked an inflection point for education technology that most investors and developers did not see coming. 2018 was a year that surfaced biased algorithms, irresponsible advertising, privacy incursions, fake news and screen-time addiction, all especially concerning for those of us who believe that while technology is no magic elixir, it is an essential element of our education system. While I see technology as a powerful force for good in education, it’s deep and unchecked infiltration into our kids everyday lives may be undermining the work of our teachers and even the purpose of public education.
Technology is, in fact, already touching nearly every part of our public education system from assessments to communication to professional learning. Field trip photos are texted to parents, real-time, quiz reminders find their way into a high-schoolers chat feeds, and teachers have new tech tools to motivate their students. Technology is helping schools get increasingly better at offering a more tailored approach to education; moving away from the one-size-fits-all model. So much of this progress is welcome and long overdue.
But I’m afraid this progress will stall if we do not urgently tend to an issue that is truly fundamental to our education system. Our public schools were designed with a clear purpose: to educate our citizenry so that democracy could thrive. Our schools are inextricably linked to our democracy. It is the reason that our schools emphasize skills like research and how to navigate disparate information and construct logical arguments. National common core standards of learning ask that students demonstrate “cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.” In short, a strong democracy is dependent on students’ ability to discern credible sources of information and use evidence-based arguments. In an age where media options have exploded and consumption is at an all-time high, it’s more important than ever that we are nurturing citizens who are intellectually rigorous and independent.
Schools do the best they can while they have our kids, but when the school day ends, kids at increasingly younger ages swipe on their phones and immerse themselves in social media sites, games, YouTube and other corners of the Internet. On average, teens spend 9 hours per day consuming media in enticing online environments where videos default to autoplay, advertisers target kids and recommended content is driven by algorithms. They spend so much time on their phones, even teens themselves are worried.
Much of what they consume is counter to the very thinking skills that schools are working so hard to build. YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, where most kids spend their time, are driven by a business model that relies on winning the consumer’s attention to secure advertising revenue. These platforms invest heavily in making their products so compelling that users want to use them every day. They build-in features like autoplay, notifications and streaks to make their products sticky in a very intentional way. Some tech executives have gone public with feelings of dissatisfaction. Sean Parker, an early tech entrepreneur left consumer tech for health tech because “you’re spending a lot of time trying to make your products as addictive as possible.”
Business models driven by attention yields content that too often results in the media equivalent of junk food for kids. When we make algorithms the decision makers, the results are: views, watch time, completion rate, and subscribers, not positive impact. That may be fine for adults, but for children, maximizing attention consumed is not good enough. When we leave out child-development experts, school leaders, and other quality considerations, we get videos like the one below, recommended by YouTube’s algorithm to a 3-year-old I know. It has almost 9M views.
Some tech journalists have been the most outspoken. TechCrunch’s John Biggs wrote, “YouTube is a cesspool of garbage kids content created by what seems to be a sentient, angry AI bent on teaching our kids that collectible toys are the road to happiness.” In my own household, I’ve been shocked so many times by inappropriate recommended content and ads served up to my 3 kids including an anti-feminist rant ad embedded in my daughter’s favored YouTube craft videos.
Big Tech is exceptionally effective at optimizing for the results they desire. The features we see now show that safety and better curated content for children has not been a priority.
Skeptics might say that television was no different with its junk food cartoons and over-the-top consumerism. I came of age in the ’80s and ’90s when the average family watched 5 hours of TV every day. It was so central to daily life that it spawned its own genre of food and furniture. While it’s true that television was built on the same ad-driven business model as Google, there was no real innovation in the underlying passive technology. The tools to target advertising and create addictive products were primitive by comparison. Television’s successor, the Internet, has proven much more powerful in this regard.
Like the Internet, TV was not made for kids. In the early days, children watched adult westerns and tobacco commercials. Child advocates started to worry about the impact of all this adult programming on children. In 1966, the prescient Joan Ganz Cooney wrote a white paper calling for children’s educational programming which led to the wildly successful Sesame Street.
Children were watching so much TV that the federal government intervened. Congress passed legislation in 1990 called The Children’s Television Act which required TV stations to develop programming that would “further the positive development of children 16 years of age and under and consider the child’s intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs.” It also cut commercial time in half and placed restrictions on what types of products could be advertised to kids. In 1997, the Federal Communication Commission enacted stricter regulations that required a minimum of 3 hours of programming per week to educate and inform children.
It was a smart move by the federal government to see TV as a potential educational tool noting, “TV has the capability to benefit society and assist in education and informing children. Studies show that TV can effectively teach children specific skills, assisting in preparing children for formal education.” Realizing the potential synergies, the Children’s Television Act was placed under the purview of the Secretary of Education.
Here we are in 2019 knowing that our children have effectively switched channels over to the Internet and are consuming content at unprecedented levels. Big tech now commands more hours of our children’s attention than schools. It’s time for the leaders of technology companies to recognize that whether they like it or not, they play a powerful role in our children’s cognitive development and even the strength of our democracy. What if they worked hand in hand with our teachers to reinforce the goals of our national learning standards through developmentally sensitive algorithms, self-monitoring tools, and requirements on source visibility?
If our tech leaders won’t step up and do the right thing, I would hope that once again the government intervenes on behalf of children. COPPA protected their privacy, and, based on the state of consumer technology, we’re going to need another act to protect their minds.
Thank you to the Reach Team (Shauntel, Wayee, Esteban, Chian, James, Jim, Jen W), Michael Levine, Jonathan Schorr and Max Brodie for your feedback and comments to improve this piece.