Dear Bill and Melinda,
The purpose of this letter is first to commend you for raising your own children with strong screen and phone limits, as this will serve them well. Bill, thank you for declaring in a recent article, “We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.” Clearly, setting firm tech limits has long been a priority for your family, as a 2007 article highlighted the strong rules you enforce around your kids’ gaming and screen habits. The benefits for your children are abundant, as research shows that these limits dramatically enhance kids’ emotional health, academic success, and physical health.
There are, however, more far-reaching steps you can take to extend this fortune to millions of other children. And my second purpose here is to encourage you to take these bolder steps. The fact is that tech companies—including Microsoft—are thwarting parents’ efforts to guide kids’ screen use. As Bill is Microsoft’s founder, second largest stockholder, and technology adviser, you can use your influence to help all children benefit from a low-tech childhood. At the same time, you’ll be magnifying your noble efforts to help the nation’s disadvantaged children.
A Generation Lost to Screens
Sadly, researchers are finding that most American children don’t have the benefit of rules limiting tech use. And while your family held off giving kids phones until age 14, the typical age children get smartphones has fallen to 10. The impact on our young people has been disastrous, as U.S. teens now spend 8 hours each day playing with screens and phones at the expense of engaging with family and school. This behavior has contributed to a generation of depressed, anxious, and self-injuring youth. We also have a nation of kids who are smartphone experts but struggle in reading, math, and the other skills colleges evaluate to decide admissions.
Encourage Parents to Step Up
Prominent tech execs such as yourselves and, as this article highlights, Steve Jobs, have firsthand knowledge of why setting strong tech limits is critical for children’s well-being. However, most parents are immersed in a sea of pop culture messages that endorse turning kids loose with tech. For example, Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd criticizes parents who set tech limits as “fearful” in her Time magazine article “Let Kids Run Wild Online.”
For the sake of our kids, I respectfully ask that you counter such harmful messages because they’re convincing many parents to “let kids run wild” with screens. Instead, help our nation’s families understand why growing up in a low-tech home improves kids’ health and fosters their success.
Parents Need to Know the Risks
Parents across the nation are loading up their children with tech products but don’t understand the dangers—until it’s too late. Tearful parents in my clinical practice tell me that their kids’ lives are falling apart because of video game/Internet addictions. Their concerns often focus on children’s use of Microsoft products such as the Xbox. Listen to this mother’s appeal for help on the Common Sense Media website: “I need advice on what to do about my 14 yr old son's addiction to video games... he has no other interests, would rather stay in his room all day and play on his Xbox, when we make him do other things he is miserable to a point he ruins it for the rest of the family.”
More parents would provide their kids an upbringing similar to what your kids experience if they understood the perils of today’s seductive technologies for growing children. And so I encourage you to advocate that warning labels be placed on video games to inform parents of the risk of addiction.
Protect Kids from Mind Manipulation
Industry insiders know what most parents don’t: that children’s video games, social media, and other tech products are now built by psychologists and neuroscientists with the intent of displacing other activities. Bill Fulton, who trained in cognitive psychology and started Microsoft’s Games User Research Group before beginning his own agency, describes video game makers’ intent: “If game designers are going to pull a person away from every other voluntary social activity or hobby or pastime, they’re going to have to engage that person at a very deep level in every possible way they can.”
I encourage you to use your immense influence to advocate that the tech industry stop using behavioral scientists to “pull” kids away from activities vital to their health and happiness.
How Reducing Kids’ Screen Time Helps the Gates Foundation
If you strongly endorse screen and phone limits for all children, tens of millions of kids’ lives could be radically improved. And such limits also will help the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation achieve its goal of improving the educational success of America’s disadvantaged children.
While tech overuse hurts all children, it’s devastating to low-income and black youngsters. According to Common Sense Media, while high-income teens spend 5 hours, 42 minutes per day with entertainment screens and phones, low-income teens spend a startling 8 hours, 7 minutes. And while white teens spend 6 hours, 18 minutes each day with entertainment screens and phones, black teens spend a disturbing 8 hours, 26 minutes. This enormous time diversion for less advantaged kids displaces academic achievement-promoting activities such as reading and homework, contributing to low rates of high school graduation and college admission.
To turn things around, I urge you to provide disadvantaged families with the message affluent families increasingly hear from educators at their high-performing schools: set screen and phone limits at home.
A Low-Tech Childhood for All
I acknowledge that my requests would require sacrifices from you, as I’m suggesting that Microsoft alter its way of selling tech to children. Yet you are in a unique position to be a catalyst for transformative change. And in the words of Albert Einstein, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Richard Freed, Ph.D.