Big Tech, Big Business and the Lives of Children

Small Screen - Thriving in a Digital World

October 10, 2022

Big Tech, Big Business and the Lives of Children


Susan Linn, Ed.D.

The harms of society affording corporations unfettered access to children are well-documented. Targeting kids with advertising and marketing has long been linked to a host of problems including childhood obesity, eating disorders, precocious sexuality and the acquisition of materialistic values, and the erosion of creative play which is the foundation of learning, creativity and constructive problem solving.

Starting in the 1980s, when the primary means of targeting children was through television, there has been growing concern among educators and health professionals about the amount of time children were spending with screens.  But the digital revolution, manifest in the 21st century inventions of smartphones, tablets, digital assistants, and social media, make our 20th century concerns seem quaint.

There’s no question that digital technologies have the potential to benefit humanity, but there’s also no question that Big Tech’s prevailing business model does children harm. Persuasive design techniques such as autoplay, infinite scrolling, push notifications, and variable rewards lure us and our kids back to our devices and keep us there. And Big Tech’s capacity for surveillance, provides corporations access to our, and our children’s, behaviors, habits, likes, dislikes, and vulnerabilities which all become fodder for personalized advertising.  For instance, the advocacy group Reset Australia, found that Facebook allows targeted advertising to teens under eighteen whose profiles suggest concerning predilections such as gambling, drinking, vaping, “extreme weight loss,” and online dating. No wonder, heavy social media use by adolescents is linked to unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lives.

While public discourse these days focuses mostly teens and social media, it’s important to remember that excessive tech time is a problem for younger children, including babies and toddlers.  Research suggests potential harms for younger kids include language delays, sleep disturbances, poorer executive function, and doing less well in school.

Particularly disturbing is emerging research on the impact of our much loved devices on relationships between parents and children. Research suggests that when absorbed in their phones, parents are more apt to ignore children’s bids for attention than when they pass the time in device-free ways, like chatting with other adults while their kids play independently.  And when parents immersed in a device do respond, it’s more likely to be with hostility.

The reverse has also been noted. Toddlers are more prone to tantrums when they have to disengage from a screen rather than a book. And preschool children are less likely to respond to parents’ requests for their attention when they are on a device, than when they play with analog toys.  And there’s more.  Parents and young children reading enhanced e-books, and playing with electronic toys, talk less together than when they play with analog books and toys. And, regardless of enhancements, parents and children are more apt to struggle for control over the device and less apt to cuddle when they read together from a device, than when they’re reading a book.

Given sophisticated marketing targeting parents and kids, the seductive power of digital technologies to capture and hold our attention, it’s unreasonable to expect parents to cope with the onslaught all by themselves.  In fact, laying the blame and burden solely on parents is simplistic.  As Tristan Harris, co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology says, “You could say that it’s my responsibility. . . but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” Parents need help from educators, health care providers, and from governments willing to rein in the ways that that Big Tech targets children.

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