Schatz, Bennet to NIH: Are We Becoming Addicted to Tech?

Almost Half of Young Children Now Own a Mobile Device


WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Ranking Member of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide more information about technology addiction and its effect on childhood development.

“Technological progress has benefited society, but we must not neglect its consequences as we continue to innovate,” the senators wrote in a letter to NIH. “To address the open question of whether we are addicted to technological devices and platforms, Congress must understand the current scientific consensus, potential gaps in research, and the best way to build a body of evidence that can inform effective policymaking.

In their letter to NIH Director Francis Collins, the senators highlighted early research showing that technology can lead to stress, depression, lack of focus, and sleep deprivation. They also underscored concerns leaders in the tech industry have expressed about addiction to electronic devices and the use of the internet. In addition to studies from nonprofit organizations and academic institutions, even investors on Wall Street have begun to show concern over tech addiction. Earlier this year, two of the biggest Wall Street investors asked Apple to research the health effects of its products and develop new tools for parents.

A recent report found that nearly all homes with children under the age of 8 years old now have a mobile device, a dramatic increase from 41 percent just six years earlier. The report also found that kids are spending more time on smartphones. Kids now spend an average of 48 minutes a day viewing a mobile screen which is up from 15 minutes a day in 2013.

For a PDF copy of the letter, click here.

Full text of the letter follows:

Dear Director Collins:

We write to request information on the scientific basis for technology addiction and its effect on childhood development.  As parents and educators grapple with how to balance the benefits of technology with the risks to our children’s mental and emotional health, it is essential that scientific evidence inform a prudent and measured approach.

Digital technology has undoubtedly improved society and enhanced our ability to learn and connect. The number of connected devices has nearly tripled since 2012, and recent advances in machine learning and computing power have facilitated complex data analysis. However, the widespread advertising-based revenue model creates financial incentives for companies to design products that maximize user engagement and screen time.  As technology integrates more fully into our daily lives, we must consider the consequences on our health and well-being, including whether our children are addicted to technology.

We are particularly concerned about technology’s negative consequences on the development of children and adolescents.  Past studies from academia and nonprofit organizations show that technology-driven stress leads to depression, lack of focus, sleep deprivation, and fragmented communities.  Psychologists and academics have produced alarming studies describing the negative outcomes of social media and digital interactions on children and adolescents.   Former engineers, designers, and executives of leading tech companies have also spoken out recently on the dangers of the products they helped create. 

Technological progress has benefited society, but we must not neglect its consequences as we continue to innovate. To address the open question of whether we are addicted to technological devices and platforms, Congress must understand the current scientific consensus, potential gaps in research, and the best way to build a body of evidence that can inform effective policymaking.  Technology companies must also engage in this national dialogue and provide researchers the necessary data required for their studies.

As Congress considers public health issues related to technology addiction, including its effects on children’s health, we ask NIH to provide a briefing and a written response to the following questions:  

  1. Is there consensus in the scientific community on whether our society is becoming addicted to technology?
  2. What are the public health effects of social networking apps that are purposefully designed to maximize user engagement?  What are the public health consequences specifically on children and adolescents?
  3. Have there been independent scientific analyses on the psychological effects of certain mobile application features?  Are technology companies and app developers providing sufficient data?
  4. How does the increased use of technology affect child development?
  5. What gaps exist in our understanding of technology and its influence on child development?

We appreciate your attention to this important matter. 

 

Sincerely,

 

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