Screen time is as addictive as junk food – how do we wean children off?

Chill out, Mum, you’re overreacting. Watching TV is just as bad,” my daughter yells as I beg her and her brother to put down their devices for just five minutes. My daughter can see me getting agitated and gives me the “you are a loser” eye-roll that all 12-year-olds seem to master.

I’m trying to convince her that mindlessly scrolling Instagram for hours is not good for her. I explain that unlimited social media is dangerous – a bit like being able to have as many Big Macs as you like, at any time you want: you end up feeling sick and empty inside. In the same way my daughter is mindful of what food she puts in her body, I want her to be mindful of what she feeds her brain. I call it “junk tech”. No brain required.

Junk tech is tech usage that has low intellectual and interpersonal value. Typically it comes in the form of packaged digital “snacks” that require no cognitive effort. It’s the infinite scroll that keeps going like a bottomless pit. It’s the constant stream of passive outputs, the mindless drivel about what people had for breakfast, the insatiable checking for likes, comments and forms of approval that make us hungry for further validation.

“It’s tech that’s ‘done to’ our kids; they are passive in the process,” says Anne Etchells, the headteacher of St Aidan’s primary school in north London. Etchells runs a coding curriculum for young children. It’s an active, creative environment that contrasts with “the passive way [that] some children engage with tech outside of the classroom”, she says.

The parallels between junk tech and the fast food industry are legion. Both target the most vulnerable in society: our children. Both manipulate – one with happy meals, creepy mascots and bright colours, the other with refined techniques such as infinite scrolling, disappearing messages and autoplay features. And both industries are swimming in cash, with fast food estimated to be worth $648bn, and the tech industry predicted to reach $5.2tn by the end of 2020.

The emotional parallels and the effects these have on mental health are clear. Eating too many processed foods that are known to promote inflammation is associated with depression (one study, by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, found that across some 100,000 participants, those with the most inflammatory diets were far more likely to have depressive symptoms, relative to those on anti-inflammatory diets).

Likewise, excessive use of social media can have a negative effect on mental wellbeing. A study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that limiting use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to 10 minutes per day led to significant reductions in loneliness and depression. Meanwhile, research from UCL shows that 38% of heavy social media users (five or more hours spent on social media a day) showed signs of having more severe depression.

But where the parallels stop is that the fight against junk tech is an invisible one. Unlike the all too visible effects of junk food, you can’t see the effects of junk tech on the brain. And what makes it more difficult is that this is a fight where the ringmasters are largely hidden from view of governments and the public. Whereas the ingredients in a chicken nugget are publicly available, the algorithms and research behind the design features that encourage us to get hooked on platforms aren’t openly shared.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, describes his former employers as “digital frankensteins” and explains how they are overwhelming our human weaknesses. In the revealing documentary The Social Dilemma, Harris details how some of the design features, such as the continuous pull-down and refresh features common to many social media apps, derive from the gambling industry and are used in slot machines that are designed to keep people coming back for more.

So what can we do to move away from junk tech? “The solutions need to be built into the tech,” says Henrietta Bowden Jones, who runs the NHS National Centre for Gaming Disorders, which provides treatment for problem gamers aged 13 to 25. “We are moving to a place where it is no longer acceptable to blame the individual, especially if they are vulnerable, for tech or games addiction,” she says.

Some ideas include building mechanisms into devices or platforms that cause them to shut down automatically after two hours, or nudges that make it more difficult to keep spending money in an app. The problem is that tech companies are ruled by a profit model built on capturing more of our attention to sell to advertisers. Designing platforms so they limit the amount of time we spend on social media runs counter to this model.

There is no official body regulating the tech industry, and self-regulation clearly isn’t working. A starting place would be to levy a 1% charge on the R&D budgets of each of the tech companies (Alphabet, which is Google’s parent company, spent $26bn alone on R&D in 2019), and use the combined pot to fund independent mental health research and clinics, such as that run by Bowden Jones.

I’d also like to see every school have an empathy and tech officer, whose sole focus and expertise is on the relationship our children have with tech. Their role would be to educate our children about how and when they are being manipulated, and how to spot the hijacking techniques your average 12-year-old might miss (the reality is most parents can’t spot them either).

These are interventions that will take time and lobbying. And yet there are ways of managing our children’s use of tech today. One place to start is by signing up to the platforms that your kids are using to understand how they work. And it’s important to start having the conversation with them about what they’re feeding their brains.

Even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs restricted their children’s screen time – the best indicator that we should too. Just as we wouldn’t let our children eat 10 Big Macs a day, why let them spend 10 hours staring at their screens?