Kids spend a lot of time behind screens, whittling away hours each day messaging friends on social media, playing games, watching movies or television series, reading and even doing homework. And parents — especially those who work in Silicon Valley — are worried for their children's health. While encouraging more girls to pursue coding could lead to economic equality, many parents are wary about promoting further use of technology, especially when girls need more screen time outside of school to stay on the STEM path to pursue STEM roles.
Nearly one in four American teens report an almost constant use of their tech devices, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. One report by Common Sense Media found that the amount of time young people spend on mobile devices alone has tripled in just four years — children eight years old and younger spent about 15 minutes a day staring at a mobile screen in 2013, and now they spend 48 minutes a day (which adds up to an average of two hours and 19 minutes a day for all screen media).
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and currently the chief executive of a robotics and drone company, as well as the founder of GeekDad.com, told the New York Times: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, [technology is] closer to crack cocaine." He added that technologists thought they could control technology use, but tech goes "straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain," which he said is beyond the capacity of regular parents to understand.
Anderson isn't alone in worrying that technology is addicting. Some addiction specialists contend that the overuse of social media, video games and other screen media technology can affect the brain in the same ways that drug and alcohol dependency do. In fact, estimates posit that over 210 million people suffer from internet and social media addictions across the globe, which is no surprise given that statistics show we spend an average of a day a week online, tapping, swiping and clicking on our devices 2,617 times each day.
Technology can be so addictive, in fact, one study found that 71 percent of Americans actually sleep with or next to their mobile devices — 45 percent of whom check social media instead of sleeping. Roughly 10 percent of teens actually check their phones more than 10 times per night. Even 90 percent of drivers admit to using smartphones behind the wheel, 50 percent of whom are reportedly checking social media. Forty-six percent of Americans go so far as to say that they could not live without their mobile phones.
Like all addictions, technology overuse can have debilitating effects. A 2018 study found that teens who spend five hours per day using their phones were almost twice as likely to exhibit depressive symptoms than counterparts who dedicated only one hour on their phones. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health also found a significant association between social media use and depression. This research isn't surprising, however. Another study by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that heavy social media users were twice as likely to report experiencing social isolation. Meanwhile, 52 percent of school-age students say social media makes them feel less confident about both their appearances and about how interesting their lives are.
For parents interested in encouraging their daughters to pursue passions for STEM — the question of how much technology use is acceptable is a tough one. To date, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female, and just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women.
The women who do go into STEM are more likely than men to leave their careers for jobs in other industries, too, according to Catalyst data. Fifty-three percent of women (compared to 31 percent of men) who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave for other industries, largely because of isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback and a lack of effective sponsors, the research suggests. If more women worked in STEM, women would have female peers, leaders and sponsors, which would, in theory, lead to better retention rates.
How does society get more women to enter STEM? Start them out young and expose them to more potentially dangerous screen time outside of school.
The more young girls spend time using technology growing up, the more skills and perhaps the more interest they'll have in pursuing careers in STEM. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says that "evidence-based benefits identified from the use of digital and social media include early learning, exposure to new ideas and knowledge, increased opportunities for social contact and support."
As girls grow older, women with technology experience may even have an advantage in the boardroom, according to Catalyst research. In 2016, women on corporate boards (16 percent) were almost twice as likely as their male counterparts (nine percent) to have professional technology experience among 518 Forbes Global 2000 companies.
The conundrum: To gain more technology experience, girls have to spend more time on technology.
“It’s important there is balance in the online and offline worlds and in leisure and learning, but what that looks like for different kids at different ages and in different families is hard to ‘prescribe’,” Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specializes in the concept of “digital nutrition,” told The Guardian. “Research shows that not having access to the digital world has a negative impact on kids — so it's about finding the right amount with a holistic approach.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report,