For years we've heard how necessary tech is to education, work, and life. The U.S. is losing its innovative edge. Your startup needs the right tech. Want your kids to be successful in the tech field? Let them grow up around tech innovators.

But even as tech companies design software and hardware to be addictive, top executives are putting limits on their children's use of the very technology that made the parents' fortunes. Even as they want other families to indulge in the frequent use of their products, they are wary of the effect of the hardware and software on their own kin.

That raises two questions. One is what they might know about technology that many people outside the industry should. The other is why people would promote products and services that they know or even suspect cause problems, particularly for children.

Tech luminaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have publicly said in the past that they limited the amount of technology their kids could use.

For example, Nick Bilton at the New York Times was surprised when Jobs, at the time the iPad was still news, said, "We limit how much technology our kids use at home." They had never touched the then-new device.

Over the last few years, more stories about tech professionals limiting screen time for their kids have come out, like the one that came out Sunday at Business Insider.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation found among 907 Silicon Valley parents that despite high confidence in technology's benefits, many parents now have serious concerns about tech's impact on kids' psychological and social development.
"You can't put your face in a device and expect to develop a long-term attention span," Taewoo Kim, chief AI engineer at the machine-learning startup One Smart Lab, told Business Insider.

When you're really deep in technology, you begin to realize how much of it is an intellectual construct that you express in different ways, whether on a computer or even a pad of paper and pencil. The computer doesn't make the software engineer. It's the engineer who makes it possible for computers to do something useful.

Technologies realize this. If you're interviewed at a top tech firm, chances are you'll need to demonstrate reasoning and technology knowledge -- with a white board and marker, not a computer. Not screens. They're secondary, and if you can't direct your mind to a problem, you won't succeed.

The industry has targeted children for decades with educational discounts. The intent was to seed the future market, getting young people in high school and college accustomed to specific brands. The bet was that eventually the future adults would order products and tend toward the familiar.

The practices have gone far beyond familiarity into creating a form of addiction as business models have moved increasingly toward advertising and service delivery on mobile devices. When you depend on the money that comes only when people pay attention to their devices, you need to keep people using those products.

Former Apple executive Tony Fadell was involved with the original design of the iPhone and iPad and the founding of Nest, which Google acquired. He has begun warning of the dangers of the design tricks companies use to keep people coming back over and over.

As former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris says people at companies like his former employer "through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today." That definitely means kids.

Companies dissemble but the clear evidence continues to mount. In 2015, Google released YouTube Kids, an app to create a family-friendly version of YouTube for children. Facebook Messenger Kids reportedly targets kids as young as 6.

Addictive design practices also target adults.

It isn't a first for companies to do things that they know may be a problem. Look at the history of the tobacco industry. Business goals become all consuming and executives march ahead to succeed, no matter what the ultimate cost could be.

The direction is not ethically or even practically sustainable. If the focus is on maintaining attention and not necessarily delivering value for time, eventually a company starts losing audience. In the fourth quarter of 2017, Facebook saw a drop in daily North American audience and an overall decrease in time spent on the platform.

Perhaps the answer is to turn away from growth as an end in itself and instead find ways to develop a sustainable business. See what you would need to keep a regular flow of revenue that would be profitable and keep things moving. Consider the value you'd need to deliver to be of constant interest to customers. If things are slowing, as they will periodically in any business, look at new areas and services that you might address rather than finding "tricks" to keep people involved. Always remember that you still go home and look at friends and loved ones at the end of the day. Make sure you can do it with your head high and a clear conscience.

Published on: Feb 19, 2018
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