High-Tech CEOs—Low-Tech Parents: Are We Getting the Message?

On September 11th, an article was published in the New York Times entitled, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent”. It was not the first one of its kind. The author, Nick Bilton, recalled a conversation years before, after Steve Jobs had blasted him about a flaw Bilton had written about with the iPad.  In his desire to escape the uncomfortable exchange, Mr. Bilton said:

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Mr. Bilton admitted he was stunned, but went on to describe a very curious trend that he increasingly noticed in talking to many high executives in the media and technology world. Their approach to parenting was not what he expected.  Many of their homes and daily routines looked like anything but the technological fantasy world that he had envisioned.  Over and over, he found that many high-tech parents significantly limited screen time (and even did not allow it during weekdays), had clear shut off times at night, and promoted the use of regular books (opposed to the screen versions) in the home.  A number of others did not even allow social networking for their teenagers and would not permit their offspring to have iPhones before high school.  These choices led many of their kids to label their high-tech parents as being unfairly strict and out-of-date in comparison to what other peers were allowed by their parents.  And the most hard and fast restriction for all tech parents surveyed:

“…rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period.  Ever.” Mr. Anderson said, chief executive of 3D Robotics.

This past year, a parallel story was leaked first by CNBC entitled, “McDonald’s Employee Site Bashes Fast Food.”  The article went to tell the tale of a series of pieces obtained from a third party posted on an official McDonald’s site.  They cautioned against the dangers of eating fast food, and why it is important to either abstain from doing this or to significantly limit the intake of these foods.  It stressed how “fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt and may put people at risk for becoming overweight” and are an “unhealthy choice.”

So what does this all have in common? Well, for decades McDonalds has spent billions of dollars marketing to kids (beyond advertisements geared towards adults) through their Happy Meals, prizes, and their playgrounds all the while knowing that the foods they are marketing (despite their recent contention of healthy options- see “How to Make Oatmeal Wrong”) are not good for anyone. For a number of reasons, we are now in a pediatric obesity crisis.  Meanwhile, if you have flipped on a television lately, you likely will recall seeing a beautiful, blue-eyed boy staring intently at a screen (or many other variants of this commercial that target youth), which is taking him to amazing places and far-away lands, not only captivating him in the present but expanding his mind for years to come.  Now our kids average eight or more hours of technology use per day (not including multi-tasking), for a number of reasons.

If you are detecting a whiff of sarcasm, it appears there is a skunk in the room. So what are the executives in the high-tech world trying to tell us? Here is what it seems.

  1. We are spending billions of dollars annually to market our products to you, your kids and their schools, for even the youngest ages. And it is working! We are getting rich and expanding our production, our products and our services, because you — as parents, teachers and school administrators—— have bought into the notion that your kids are going to be left in the dark if they are not tuned in and linked in to all the new platforms and software available.
  2. Meanwhile, when it comes to our own children, we recognize that there are serious risks in exposing them to this technology during their childhood and adolescent years. No matter what technology may offer, we feel that it is critical to provide an environment for them that will foster basic skills — in socialization, emotional regulation, critical thinking, delayed gratification, and sustaining attention — which will be very difficult to develop after they become adults.
  3. Therefore, despite the fact that we are marketing to your kids and their schools, and making a ton of money from their consumption of technology, we feel that many of our own products, or certain patterns of usage, are not good for our offspring, now or for the rest of their lives.

If we think about this, whether in regard to the fast food our kids beg for, or the mobile devices they swear they can’t live without, it is difficult to not find ourselves angered by the reality of it all. Don’t get me wrong.  We as parents are still 100% responsible for the choices we make.  But I have come to know well the power of suggestion and exposure in media and marketing (see further information about this as it pertains to media/technology in the January 2013 edition of Just Thinking). We don’t like to admit we are swayed by pressure from others, whether on the screen or not.  But we are.  Apple didn’t spend over a billion dollars—yes, a billion— (and Microsoft 1.6 billion) in 2012 just on a hope and a prayer that it might increase sales. They know what they are doing.  McDonald’s knows what they are doing.  But do we know what we are doing, and why?

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