THE BLOG
01/15/2016 02:08 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

Answering the President's Technology Challenge

In this week's State of the Union address, President Obama challenged Congress and all of us to consider an important, fundamental question: How do we make technology work for us and not against us ?

This is particularly important in the context of our children. How do we unlock all of the exciting possibilities for learning and connection that technology provides without falling prey to the traps that threaten to undermine our most basic human connections?

As the first generation of mobile natives comes of age, kids are spending a large portion of their day with media. Businesses are well aware and are desperately searching for new ways to reach and market to teens and tweens. We must make sure that the safeguards and protections for families keep pace with this rapid change and that technology continues to be a force for good in our society.

As the president said, we live in a time of extraordinary change. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.

Today, 75 percent of American teenagers have access to a smartphone or tablet, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. With mobility comes constant access. More than 90 percent of teens report going online daily -- with 24 percent using the Internet "almost constantly," 56 percent going online several times a day, and 12 percent reporting once-a-day use, the Pew study found.

These findings were supported by the Common Sense Media Census, the first comprehensive look at how kids, tweens, and teens use electronic media. What we don't know is how this constant connectedness is changing our kids and maybe altering the very way their brains are wired.

Unfortunately, corporate America is far ahead of government or the nonprofit sector in developing research on how young people use media, in their constant quest to target new markets. Research company eMarketer, for example, finds that companies are expected to spend $30 billion on in-app advertising in the United States, roughly double what they spent in 2014.

As companies continue their research into how to market to our kids, we should also make sure we have a parallel national conversation about the impact of nonstop technology on our kids' psyches and well-being.

So much about our society is changing so fast in ways that we cannot fully understand. While this change is coming with exciting new educational opportunities and an immense amount of information available at our fingertips, less is known about the ways our constant connectedness is changing the way our brains work and our most basic types of human connection.

Technology is something to be embraced, but we must be smart about how we move forward as a society. Foundations, nonprofit groups, and government should all be focused on developing research into these fundamental questions about our society and our collective future.

This hypermobile culture is breeding a generation accustomed to instant gratification and immediate social validation in ways that, if left unchecked, could become unhealthy. As Michael Jones, chief executive of the company that makes the teen-focused app Wishbone told the New York Times recently, "You haven't even seen what [the need for] immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with...a teen on a phone."

This constant contact and need for social justification has potential real-world consequences. Parents, teachers, and our broader society all have an important role to play in ensuring we keep a close eye on the ways that childhood and adolescence in particular are transformed by our tech culture.

In this electronic age, we need to instill a sense of responsible digital citizenship -- one that begins at an early age and is woven into the standard academic curriculum. Through increased research and responsibility, we can ensure that technological progress continues while limiting the potential for emotional, mental, or physical harm to our children.

As the president said, technology has great promise for curing cancer and addressing climate change and other great challenges of our time. Making sure it is used for the benefit -- and not the exploitation of children -- should be one of the priorities of this administration and the next.