Melinda Gates warns against giving smartphones to kids too early

Even after working for years as a computer scientist for Microsoft, Melinda Gates has been surprised by the pace of technological change.

And the impact of those rapid advancements, for Gates, strikes very close to home.

“I spent my career at Microsoft trying to imagine what technology could do, and still I wasn’t prepared for smartphones and social media,” Gates said in an Aug. 24 op-ed in the Washington Post.

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“Like many parents with children my kids’ age, I didn’t understand how they would transform the way my kids grew up — and the way I wanted to parent.”

And, she said, she’s still trying to catch up.

“The challenges my younger daughter will be facing when she starts high school in the fall are light-years away from what my elder daughter, who’s now in college, experienced in 2010,” she said.

“My younger daughter’s friends live a lot of their lives through filters on Instagram and Snapchat, two apps that didn’t even exist when my elder daughter was dipping a toe in social media.”

However, as might be expected from a former Microsoft product manager and wife to a tech mega-billionaire, Gates is no Luddite.

“I am optimistic about what smartphones and social media can do for people,” she said.

“I am thrilled to see kids learning on smartphones, doctors using apps to diagnose diseases and marginalized groups such as gay and lesbian students finding support they never had before through social networks.”

Still, she worries, and looking back a few years, finds herself wishing she’d waited a few years before “putting a computer in (her) daughters’ pockets,” she said.

“Phones and apps aren’t good or bad by themselves, but for adolescents who don’t yet have the emotional tools to navigate life’s complications and confusions, they can exacerbate the difficulties of growing up: learning how to be kind, coping with feelings of exclusion, taking advantage of freedom while exercising self-control,” she said.

Gates suggested that teaching empathy to kids these days was crucial, because they’re “going to need it,” and she proffered advice for parents that she said have helped her and her friends deal with the combination of children and fast-evolving technology.

She advised mothers and fathers to learn about the issue, and she noted that research has linked smartphones and social media to emotional distress.

“For example, eighth-graders who use social media more than 10 hours a week are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than peers who use it less,” Gates said.

And it’s important to go Luddite once in a while, suggested Gates, who is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Unplug: One of my favorite things you can do is plan a ‘device-free dinner,'” she said.

“It’s not complicated. It’s exactly what it says: an hour around a table without anything that has an on or off switch.”

And taking a hard line on what’s going to appear before children’s eyes can be important, she said.

“Have tough conversations,” she recommended, using as an example Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” a web TV series focused on teen suicide.

“Every parent has to decide for themselves whether they will let their children watch and, if so, under what conditions,” Gates said.

She recommended parents make a plan for their kids’ media consumption, pointing dads and moms toward the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan website.

“This site walks you step-by-step through a process of being intentional about how your family consumes media,” she said.

“The great thing is that it’s not one size fits all. It helps you build a unique plan for your family.”

 

Photo: Mother and child with smartphone (David Hilowitz/flickr)

 

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