An American mother living in Germany learns the benefits of letting children solve their own arguments
ILLUSTRATION: RUTH GWILY
The chaos of German kindergartens is sometimes hard for Americans to understand.
When I lived in Berlin for nearly seven years, I was surprised at first to find that kindergartens and child-care centers (called “kitas”) were all about play, all the time. No reading, no math work sheets. There was simple lawlessness. Children ran around yelling, playing whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted. Some rules applied, but they were pretty basic, such as no hitting and no climbing on furniture. The teachers rarely organized the children’s play.
“It’s ‘Lord of the Flies’!” We expat parents whispered to each other. “And that one kid?” We all knew the one. “They really should watch him more.”
The image goes against the stereotype of the “strict German.” The country’s anti-authoritarian movement in 1968 challenged the old ways of doing things, including how children were raised. Some educators even set up kindergartens with no rules at all. That extreme has waned, but today, many Germans still largely reject harsh discipline of children.
Of course, it’s natural for children to fight. But the way German teachers at our kita approached these conflicts was very different than in the U.S. They didn’t rush to interfere, unless a child was about to be hurt. They didn’t punish, hand out warnings, write names of naughty kids on the board or clip them down on the rainbow-colored behavior chart of doom.
Instead, German teachers spent time observing the situation. Sometimes they took children aside to talk to them individually; sometimes they spoke to the whole group about fairness and kindness directly, or indirectly, by reading stories that touched on the issue. Sometimes they did nothing at all.
“Children really do wonderfully to work things out by themselves,” a kita teacher assured me.
That approach is echoed in a handbook by Margarete Blank-Mathieu for German instructors working with young children. “Children have to argue even if it is difficult for the instructor or the group suffers,” she writes. Arguments are critical for children’s social and self-development, she continues. Kids fight for a variety of reasons: to set their boundaries, to draw attention to themselves, to test their strength (both physical and social), and simply because they are poor losers.
Children must learn how to handle all of these things as they grow up—and the German ethos is that children learn this best through interacting with each other, not by having an adult step in and punish the apparent offender.
I had some doubts as to whether this method worked, but I saw the effect it had on my own children.
Six years ago, when she was 5, my daughter, Sophia, had two close friends at kita. They were both wonderful, strong-willed girls—and they argued a lot, often demanding that Sophia pick a side. This ended in many hurt feelings. She was de-friended and uninvited to distant future birthday parties dozens of times. She often cried over it.
These fights became so prevalent that the instructors took notice and gently pulled the girls aside to talk. They would ask questions like “How do you think that makes her feel?” or “What would you do if you were her?” This method of “mirroring” helped the children look at the consequences of their actions and practice empathizing with others.
It didn’t always have the best result. “If they said, ‘I don’t want to play with her,’ we needed to accept this,” the head teacher told me. “Maybe it will change 10 minutes later.” Teachers never handed out punishments or imposed solutions on these disputes.
While my daughter’s struggles lasted longer than I liked, in the end, this experience taught her some powerful lessons. By the time she made it to elementary school, she was known as a peacemaker. To this day, she rarely has an issue with a “mean girl,” either as a victim or being one herself.
Nor does she label them as such—and neither should we. Because truly none of the children are mean girls or boys. They are just kids, learning how to get along with each other and making some mistakes along the way.
—Ms. Zaske is the author of “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children,” to be published Jan. 2 by Picador.
The holiday season is approaching. That means, lights, music, parties, family gathering, shopping trips. All the excitement surrounding the holidays equates to sensory overload in many children. For children with ADHD, sensory overload can spell disaster.
Poor behavior vs. sensory overload
You might be aware that your child has a hard time focusing or becomes more hyperactive when in places where there is a lot of activity and stimulation. But overstimulation has been associated with a host of other behavioral issues. The North Shore Pediatric Therapy center explains that, due to sensory overload, children might show the following behaviors:
Reactions to sensory overload are as varied as the children themselves. Some might act out, others might turn inward and shy away from any social interaction. When you start looking at your child’s challenging behaviors and seeing the frustration or pain behind them, you can look for solutions rather than becoming frustrated and upset yourself.
What causes sensory overload?
Children with ADHD are often hypersensitive – they have a difficult time processing some sensory experiences. Loud noises, bright lights and high levels of activity can commonly bring on sensory overload but there are many other stimuli that can cause problems. Your child might be alright if one or two high stimulus things are going on at one time but during the holidays these add up quickly, causing your child to become overwhelmed. The following are situations that might cause a child with hypersensitivities discomfort:
Loud noises, buzzing noises, banging noises, loud talking or environments with noise coming from multiple sources
Bright lights, flashing or blinking lights
High activity levels
Smells of certain foods, strong aromas or smells of multiple foods at once
Texture of certain foods
People being too close or bumping into other people
The feel of certain clothing including rough textured clothing, clothing with tags or seams that irritate the skin
Thanksgiving, which traditionally kicks off our holiday season, can be the start of a month long “overstimulation” event.
Be proactive to help your child manage overstimulation
There are a number of ways you can help your child better manage overstimulation during the holiday season:
Talk about what to expect. Before heading to any holiday event, talk to your child about what to expect, including what time you will be arriving and what time you expect to leave. Let him or her know what will happen during the event.
Provide a safe, quiet area. Whether you are in your home or a relative’s home, look for an area your child can retreat to when things become overwhelming. (In your home it could be your child’s bedroom, in a relative’s house you could ask your host if there is an area you can set aside for your child.) You might want to pack a backpack with a few items from home your child can play with alone.
Bring along food you know your child will eat. If your child has food sensitivities, pack food you know he will like. Hunger can add to irritability and behavior issues.
Let friends and relatives know if your child doesn’t like being hugged. Some families are “huggers” and don’t understand when someone avoids their hug. They may see your child as being rude. Let them know in advance that his preference is to simply say hello.
Think about other triggers that might causes your child to feel overwhelmed. Coming up with ideas and solutions to make the holiday event more bearable for your child will help everyone have a better time.
If you have children with ADHD you probably know that summer brings on a new set of problems. One is boredom. Children with ADHD tend to become bored quicker than those without ADHD. When boredom strikes, children with ADHD often act impulsively, make risky decisions or seek high-stimulus activities — and this can get them into trouble.
Why are children with ADHD more prone to boredom?
There have been a few studies looking at the correlation between ADHD traits and boredom. In the first study, researchers found that people who get bored easily are more likely to exhibit symptoms of ADHD, both in attention deficits and hyperactivity. The second study came up with similar results: those prone to boredom had increased symptoms of ADHD and depression as well as faring poorly on sustained-attention measures.
In the book Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, the authors list 20 criteria for diagnosing ADHD. The seventh item is “an intolerance for boredom.” Dr. Daniel Amen, in his book Reclaim Your Brain, explains that some individuals with ADHD have low activity in their prefrontal cortex. These people might seek out high-stimulus, risky or engaging activities because these increase the activity in the brain and actually help them to calm down. They seek activities that will jolt their brain out of the lethargy it feels during times of boredom. They physically have “intolerance to boredom.”
For many children with ADHD, the boredom of the long summer days can lead to misbehaviors, accidents or creative thinking. By preparing for and managing boredom you can help your child enjoy the summer months.
Tips for managing boredom in children with ADHD
Provide structure and routine. You might be tempted to forego the routine since they just ended a school year that was highly structured, but routine actually decreases chances of getting bored. Structure and planned activities give your child something to do.
Incorporate movement into every day. Children with ADHD need to get up and move around. Try to start each day with exercise, even if it is only for 10 or 15 minutes. This helps get your child’s brain ready for the day. If you notice your child getting bored, play some music and dance. If your child is spending most of the day at home, plan for active play at least once every two hours.
Use your child’s interests as the inspiration for activities. Try to plan for your child to spend time each day pursuing his passion. If your children are younger, think about the activities that grab and hold their interest. For older children, find camps, clubs or classes that further their knowledge about the topic or allow them to build skills.
Create a boredom-beating box. Fill a box with different types of items: art and craft supplies, musical instruments and fascinating books. Take out the box for limited times to help keep the items interesting. You might take it out at a certain time of day or save it for when your child appears to be bored.
Look for variety in activities. Summer is a great time to explore different things and some children haven’t any idea what they are interested in doing. Search out community activities or plan short trips that will give your children new and interesting experiences.
What does the child who can’t say goodbye to a parent without breaking down have in common with the child who is cripplingly terrified of dogs and the one who gets a bad stomach ache reliably on Monday morning?
Anxieties and worries of all kinds are common in children, necessarily part of healthy development, but also, when they interfere with the child’s functioning, the most common pediatric mental health problems. From separation anxiety to social anxiety to school avoidance to phobias to generalized anxiety disorder, many children’s lives are at some point touched by anxiety that gets out of hand.
“I often tell parents, anxiety and fears are totally a normal and healthy part of growing up,” said Dr. Sabrina Fernandez, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, who has written about strategies for primary care doctors to use in dealing with anxiety disorders. “I worry that it’s becoming something more when it interferes with the child’s ability to do their two jobs: to learn in school and to make friends.”
Children whose lives are being seriously derailed by their anxieties often get psychotherapy or medication, or both. And a meta-analysis published in November in JAMA looked at the two best-studied treatments for anxiety disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotropic medication. The technique of a meta-analysis allows scientists to pull in a whole range of different studies, weight the results according to the size and rigor of the research, and then consider the wider array of data gleaned from multiple investigations.
“We included panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder and separation anxiety,” said the lead author, Zhen Wang, an associate professor of health services research at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science (they did not include children with post-traumatic stress disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder). The study looked at the effectiveness of treatments in reducing the symptoms of anxiety, and at ending the anxiety disorder state. And they also looked at any reports of adverse events associated with the treatments, from sleep disturbances to suicide.
The authors examined 115 different studies, for a total of 7,719 patients, and concluded that certain kinds of antidepressant medications — especially the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or S.S.R.I.s — were effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in children; the mean age of the children in the study was 9.2 years, with a range of 5 to 16.
There were only a few studies that directly compared them, but they suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy may be even more effective at reducing symptoms and at resolving the anxiety disorders, and that the combination of medication and C.B.T. may be better than either was alone. The drugs were associated with a variety of adverse events, though they did not find the association with suicide attempts that has led to a black box warning on S.S.R.I.s. Still, they have not ruled out those dangers: “The difference may be due to underreporting and monitoring of suicide attempts in clinical trials,” Dr. Wang said.
Dr. Stephen P.H. Whiteside, the director of the Pediatric Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, who was one of the authors of the meta analysis, said, “if your child has difficulties with anxiety, first of all, it’s treatable. There are a variety of interventions that can be helpful.”
So which of those children — the parent-clinger, the dog-fearer, the school-avoider — needs psychotherapy or psychopharmacology?
“Anxiety happens in kids,” said Dr. Christopher K. Varley, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “It does not always need treatment.” And it does not always look exactly like what adults think of as anxiety, he said. Kids can have physical symptoms, or become disruptive; headaches and stomachaches and tantrums can all mean that a child is anxious.
“The important questions to me are, is this a problem, is it getting in the way of functioning, is it creating stress for the child and the family, is it causing pain and suffering?” he said.
“A big thing for families is that sometimes anxiety can lead to avoidance behavior in social settings and in school,” Dr. Fernandez said. But staying away from school is only going to make the problem worse, she said. “As a parent, all you want to do is make your child feel safe and feel comfortable, and if they’re saying, I only feel safe and comfortable home with my door shut, that can only exacerbate the problem.”
The most helpful form of therapy, Dr. Whiteside said, according to the evidence, is exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves helping kids face their fears in a supportive environment. “If they’re afraid of dogs, they have to practice petting dogs; if they’re afraid of talking to people, practice talking to people.” That seems to be of greater value for children with these problems than, for example, therapies based on changing thought patterns, or distractions, or even therapy aimed at deeper insight into the fears.
The message of exposure therapy, Dr. Whiteside said, is that the situations the child is avoiding are not as dangerous as the child’s anxiety would suggest, and that the child can cope with the anxiety. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling that you can handle,” he said, and the more the child handles it, the more proficient the child will become.
But this takes skill and experience on the therapist’s part, and an investment of time and resources by the family. “We found that C.B.T. reports the most consistent outcomes compared to placebo, but it’s time-consuming and sometimes in rural areas it’s not available,” Dr. Wang said.
The question of medication may arise for children with moderate to severe anxiety, and perhaps ideally for a child who is already getting psychotherapy. But of course, not everyone has access to the experts, or to the recommended forms of therapy. Psychotropic medications are often prescribed by primary care doctors, pediatricians or family physicians, doing their best to help their patients, sometimes getting guidance from a psychiatrist by phone.
“Even though it’s a common problem and there are treatments that work, there are still profound problems in the United States with access to psychotherapists who are versed in psychotherapy techniques that have been demonstrated to help,” Dr. Varley said. “And there clearly is a paucity of child psychiatrists.”
In an editorial accompanying the recent meta-analysis, researchers hailed the large numbers of children included, but warned that many children don’t respond fully to treatment, and that children who suffer from one form of anxiety disorder are often at high risk to develop another.
“The good news is I’ve had lots of patients who’ve had much better experiences and were able to deal with those ups and downs of life, who went to therapy and learned tools to deal, or needed a little help with medication,” said Dr. Fernandez.
Like a lot of children, my sons, Toby, 7, and Anton, 4, are obsessed with robots. In the children’s books they devour at bedtime, happy, helpful robots pop up more often than even dragons or dinosaurs. The other day I asked Toby why children like robots so much.
“Because they work for you,” he said.
What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is, someday he might work for them — or, I fear, might not work at all, because of them.
It is not just Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking who are freaking out about the rise of invincible machines. Yes, robots have the potential to outsmart us and destroy the human race. But first, artificial intelligence could make countless professions obsolete by the time my sons reach their 20s.
You do not exactly need to be Marty McFly to see the obvious threats to our children’s future careers.
Say you dream of sending your daughter off to Yale School of Medicine to become a radiologist. And why not? Radiologists in New York typically earn about $470,000, according to Salary.com.
But that job is suddenly looking iffy as A.I. gets better at reading scans. A start-up called Arterys, to cite just one example, already has a program that can perform a magnetic-resonance imaging analysis of blood flow through a heart in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans.
Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, but that job may not be safe, either. Robots already assist surgeons in removing damaged organs and cancerous tissue, according to Scientific American. Last year, a prototype robotic surgeon called STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) outperformed human surgeons in a test in which both had to repair the severed intestine of a live pig.
So perhaps your daughter detours to law school to become a rainmaking corporate lawyer. Skies are cloudy in that profession, too. Any legal job that involves lots of mundane document review (and that’s a lot of what lawyers do) is vulnerable.
Software programs are already being used by companies including JPMorgan Chase & Company to scan legal papers and predict what documents are relevant, saving lots of billable hours. Kira Systems, for example, has reportedly cut the time that some lawyers need to review contracts by 20 to 60 percent.
As a matter of professional survival, I would like to assure my children that journalism is immune, but that is clearly a delusion. The Associated Press already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.
What about other glamour jobs, like airline pilot? Well, last spring, a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, flew and landed a simulated 737. I hardly count that as surprising, given that pilots of commercial Boeing 777s, according to one 2015 survey, only spend seven minutes during an average flight actually flying the thing. As we move into the era of driverless cars, can pilotless planes be far behind?
Then there is Wall Street, where robots are already doing their best to shove Gordon Gekko out of his corner office. Big banks are using software programs that can suggest bets, construct hedges and act as robo-economists, using natural language processing to parse central bank commentary to predict monetary policy, according to Bloomberg. BlackRock, the biggest fund company in the world, made waves earlier this year when it announced it was replacing some highly paid human stock pickers with computer algorithms.
So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 studyby the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.
Just this week, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that found that a third of American workers may have to switch jobs in the next dozen or so years because of A.I.
I know I am not the only parent wondering if I can robot-proof my children’s careers. I figured I would start by asking my own what they want to do when they grow up.
Toby, a people pleaser and born entertainer, is obsessed with cars and movies. He told me he wanted to be either an Uber driver or an actor. (He is too young to understand that those jobs are usually one and the same).
As for Uber drivers, it is no secret that they are headed to that great parking garage in the sky; the company recently announced plans to buy 24,000 Volvo sport utility vehicles to roll out as a driverless fleet between 2019 and 2021.
And actors? It may seem unthinkable that some future computer-generated thespian could achieve the nuance of expression and emotional depth of, say, Dwayne Johnson. But Hollywood is already Silicon Valley South. Consider how filmmakers used computer graphics to reanimate Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin as they appeared in the 1970s (never mind that the Mr. Cushing died in 1994) for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
My younger son Anton, a sweetheart, but tough as Kevlar, said he wanted to be a football player. Robot football may sound crazy, but come to think of it, a Monday night battle between the Dallas Cowdroids and Seattle Seabots may be the only solution to the sport’s endless concussion problems.
He also said he wanted to be a soldier. If he means foot soldier, however, he might want to hold off on enlistment. Russia recently unveiled Fedor, a humanoid robot soldier that looks like RoboCop after a Whole30 crash diet; this space-combat-ready android can fire handguns, drive vehicles, administer first aid and, one hopes, salute. Indeed, the world’s armies are in such an arms race developing grunt-bots that one British intelligence expert predicted that American forces will have more robot soldiers than humans by 2025.
And again, all of this stuff is happening now, not 25 years from now. Who knows what the jobs marketplace might look like by then. We might not even be the smartest beings on the planet.
Ever heard of the “singularity”? That is the term that futurists use to describe a potentially cataclysmic point at which machine intelligence catches up to human intelligence, and likely blows right past it. They may rule us. They may kill us. No wonder Mr. Musk says that A.I. “is potentially more dangerous than nukes.”
But is it really that dire? Fears of technology are as old as the Luddites, those machine-smashing British textile workers of the early 19th century. Usually, the fears turn out to be overblown.
The rise of the automobile, to cite the obvious example, did indeed put most manure shovelers out of work. But it created millions of jobs to replace them, not just for Detroit assembly line workers, but for suburban homebuilders, Big Mac flippers and actors performing “Greased Lightnin’” in touring revivals of “Grease.” That is the process of creative destruction in a nutshell.
But artificial intelligence is different, said Martin Ford, the author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”Machine learning does not just give us new machines to replace old machines, pushing human workers from one industry to another. Rather, it gives us new machines to replace us, machines that can follow us to virtually any new industry we flee to.
Since Mr. Ford’s book sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place, I reached out to him to see if he was concerned about all this for his own children: Tristan, 22, Colin, 17, and Elaine, 10.
He said the most vulnerable jobs in the robot economy are those involving predictable, repetitive tasks, however much training they require. “A lot of knowledge-based jobs are really routine — sitting in front of a computer and cranking out the same application over and over, whether it is a report or some kind of quantitative analysis,” he said.
Professions that rely on creative thinking enjoy some protection (Mr. Ford’s older son is a graduate student studying biomedical engineering). So do jobs emphasizing empathy and interpersonal communication (his younger son wants to be a psychologist).
Even so, the ability to think creatively may not provide ultimate salvation. Mr. Ford said he was alarmed in May when Google’s AlphaGo software defeated a 19-year-old Chinese master at Go, considered the world’s most complicated board game.
“If you talk to the best Go players, even they can’t explain what they’re doing,” Mr. Ford said. “They’ll describe it as a ‘feeling.’ It’s moving into the realm of intuition. And yet a computer was able to prove that it can beat anyone in the world.”
In one, Albert Wenger, an influential tech investor, promoted the Basic Income Guarantee concept. Also known as Universal Basic Income, this sunny concept holds that a robot-driven economy may someday produce an unlimited bounty of cool stuff while simultaneously releasing us from the drudgery of old-fashioned labor, leaving our government-funded children to enjoy bountiful lives of leisure as interpretive dancers or practitioners of bee-sting therapy, as touted by Gwyneth Paltrow.
The idea is all the rage among Silicon Valley elites, who not only understand technology’s power, but who also love to believe that it will be used for good. In their vision of a post-A.I. world without traditional jobs, everyone will receive a minimum weekly or monthly stipend (welfare for all, basically).
Another talk by David Autor, an economist, argued that reports of the death of work are greatly exaggerated. Almost 50 years after the introduction of the A.T.M., for instance, more humans actually work as bank tellers than ever. The computers simply freed the humans from mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills to focus on more cognitively demanding tasks like “forging relationships with customers, solving problems and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans and investments,” he said.
Computers, after all, are really good at some things and, for the moment, terrible at others. Even Anton intuits this. The other day I asked him if he thought robots were smarter or dumber than humans. “Sdumber,” he said after a long pause. Confused, I pushed him. “Smarter and dumber,” he explained with a cheeky smile.
He was joking. But he also happened to be right, according to Andrew McAfee, a management theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whom I interviewed a short while later.
Discussing another of Anton’s career aspirations — songwriter — Dr. McAfee said that computers were already smart enough to come up with a better melody than a lot of humans. “The things our ears find pleasant, we know the rules for that stuff,” he said. “However, I’m going to be really surprised when there is a digital lyricist out there, somebody who can put words to that music that will actually resonate with people and make them think something about the human condition.”
Not everyone, of course, is cut out to be a cyborg-Springsteen. I asked Dr. McAfee what other jobs may exist a decade from now.
“I think health coaches are going to be a big industry of the future,” he said. “Restaurants that have a very good hospitality staff are not about to go away, even though we have more options to order via tablet.
“People who are interested in working with their hands, they’re going to be fine,” he said. “The robot plumber is a long, long way away.”
What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care
Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, says a former Google product manager. Anderson Cooper reports
The following script is from “Brain Hacking,” which aired on April 9, 2017. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Guy Campanile, producer.
Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. He is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it “brain hacking” and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it. But Tristan Harris openly questions the long-term consequences of it all and we think it’s worth putting down your phone to listen.
Tristan Harris: This thing is a slot machine.
Anderson Cooper: How is that a slot machine?
Tristan Harris: Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.
The rewards Harris is talking about are a big part of what makes smartphones so appealing. The chance of getting likes on Facebook and Instagram. Cute emojis in text messages. And new followers on Twitter.
Tristan Harris: There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.
Anderson Cooper: What kind of techniques are used?
“…every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit.” Tristan Harris
Tristan Harris: Tristan Harris: So Snapchat’s the most popular messaging service for teenagers. And they invented this feature called “streaks,” which shows the number of days in a row that you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone. So now you could say, “Well, what’s the big deal here?” Well, the problem is that kids feel like, “Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak.” But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf. And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?
Anderson Cooper: Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?
Tristan Harris: Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.
Anderson Cooper: Technology’s not neutral?
Tristan Harris: It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.
It’s rare for a tech insider to be so blunt, but Tristan Harris believes someone needs to be. A few years ago he was living the Silicon Valley dream. He dropped out of a master’s program at Stanford University to start a software company. Four years later Google bought him out and hired him as a product manager. It was while working there he started to feel overwhelmed.
Tristan Harris: Honestly, I was just bombarded in email and calendar invitations and just the overload of what it’s like to work at a place like Google. And I was asking, “When is all of this adding up to, like, an actual benefit to my life?” And I ended up making this presentation. It was kind of a manifesto. And it basically said, you know, “Look, never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.”
“Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people.” Tristan Harris
His 144-page presentation argued that the constant distractions of apps and emails are “weakening our relationships to each other,” and “destroying our kids ability to focus.” It was widely read inside Google, and caught the eye of one of the founders Larry Page. But Harris told us it didn’t lead to any changes and after three years he quit.
Tristan Harris: And it’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you, you know, using my product, I win. But it doesn’t end up in the world we want to live in. We don’t end up feeling good about how we’re using all this stuff.
Anderson Cooper: You call this a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It’s a race to the most primitive emotions we have? Fear, anxiety, loneliness, all these things?
Tristan Harris: Absolutely. And that’s again because in the race for attention I have to do whatever works.
Tristan Harris: It absolutely wants one thing, which is your attention.
Now he travels the country trying to convince programmers and anyone else who will listen that the business model of tech companies needs to change. He wants products designed to make the best use of our time not just grab our attention.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think parents understand the complexities of what their kids are dealing with, when they’re dealing with their phone, dealing with apps and social media?
Tristan Harris: No. And I think this is really important. Because there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.
Anderson Cooper: How many Silicon Valley insiders are there speaking out like you are?
Tristan Harris: Not that many.
We reached out to the biggest tech firms but none would speak on the record and some didn’t even return our phone call. Most tech companies say their priority is improving user experience, something they call “engagement.” But they remain secretive about what they do to keep people glued to their screens. So we went to Venice, California, where the body builders on the beach are being muscled out by small companies that specialize in what Ramsay Brown calls “brain hacking.”
Ramsay Brown: A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
Ramsay Brown studied neuroscience before co-founding Dopamine Labs, a start-up crammed into a garage. The company is named after the dopamine molecule in our brains that aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. Brown and his colleagues write computer code for apps used by fitness companies and financial firms. The programs are designed to provoke a neurological response.
“A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.” Ramsay Brown
Anderson Cooper: You’re trying to figure out how to get people coming back to use the screen?
Ramsay Brown: When should I make you feel a little extra awesome to get you to come back into the app longer?
The computer code he creates finds the best moment to give you one of those rewards, which have no actual value, but Brown says trigger your brain to make you want more. For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.
Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment–
Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.
When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.
Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.
Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?
Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The longer we look at our screens, the more data companies collect about us, and the more ads we see. Ad spending on social media has doubled in just two years to more than $31 billion.
Ramsay Brown: You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.
Anderson Cooper: That’s an interesting way to look at it, that you’re not the customer for Facebook.
“You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.” Ramsay Brown
Ramsay Brown: You’re not the customer. You don’t sign a check to Facebook. But Coca-Cola does.
Brown says there’s a reason texts and Facebook use a continuous scroll, because it’s a proven way to keep you searching longer.
Ramsay Brown: You spend half your time on Facebook just scrolling to find one good piece worth looking at. It’s happening because they are engineered to become addictive.
Anderson Cooper: You’re almost saying it like there’s an addiction code.
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, that is the case. That since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.
Larry Rosen: Dinner table could be a technology-free zone.
While Brown is tapping into the power of dopamine, psychologist Larry Rosen and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills are researching the effect technology has on our anxiety levels.
Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.
Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.
Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?
Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.
So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.
Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.
Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.
Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.
Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.
Larry Rosen: Yes.
We found out just how anxious in this experiment conducted by Rosen’s research colleague Nancy Cheever.
Nancy Cheever: So the first thing I’m going to do is apply these electrodes to your fingers.
While I watched a video, a computer tracked minute changes in my heart rate and perspiration. What I didn’t know was that Cheever was sending text messages to my phone which was just out of reach. Every time my text notification went off, the blue line spiked – indicating anxiety caused in part by the release of cortisol.
Nancy Cheever: Oh, that one is…that’s a huge spike right there. And if you can imagine what that’s doing to your body. Every time you get a text message you probably can’t even feel it right? Because it’s such a um, it’s a small amount of arousal.
Anderson Cooper: That’s fascinating.
Their research suggests our phones are keeping us in a continual state of anxiety in which the only antidote – is the phone.
Anderson Cooper: Is it known what the impact of all this technology use is?
Larry Rosen: Absolutely not.
Anderson Cooper: It’s too soon.
Larry Rosen: We’re all part of this big experiment.
Anderson Cooper: What is this doing to a young mind or a teenager?
Larry Rosen: Well there’s some projects going on where they’re actually scanning teenager’s brains over a 20-year period and looking to see what kind of changes they’re finding.
Gabe Zichermann: Here’s the reality. Corporations and creators of content have, since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible.
Gabe Zichermann has worked with dozens of companies – including Apple and CBS – to make their online products more irresistible. He’s best known in Silicon Valley for his expertise in something called “gamification,” using techniques from video games to insert fun and competition into almost everything on your smartphone.
Gabe Zichermann: So one of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies, is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out, you know, using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.
“Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask.” Gabe Zichermann
Zichermann is now working on software called ‘Onward’ designed to break user’s bad habits. It will track a person’s activity and can recommend they do something else when they’re spending too much time online.
Gabe Zichermann: I think creators have to be liberated to make their content as good as possible.
Anderson Cooper: The idea that a tech company is not going to try to make their product as persuasive, as engaging as possible, you’re just saying that’s not gonna happen?
Gabe Zichermann: Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask. It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic, this isn’t the system that we live in.
Ramsay Brown and his garage start-up Dopamine Labs made a habit-breaking app as well. It’s called “Space” and it creates a 12-second delay — what Brown calls a “moment of Zen” before any social media app launches. In January, he tried to convince Apple to sell it in their App Store.
Ramsay Brown: And they rejected it from the App Store because they told us any app that would encourage people to use other apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.
Anderson Cooper: They actually said that to you?
Ramsay Brown: They said that to us. They did not want us to give out this thing that was gonna make people less stuck on their phones.
The cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human dignity. Every person has innate and infinite dignity imparted by God. All actions in and by society may be judged as just or unjust, good or sinful, based on whether or not they uphold this fundamental dignity intrinsic to every human life. Here are three reasons why sexual harassment violates Catholic social teaching.
1. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Human Dignity
Sexual harassment violates the dignity of the person being harassed. If you are a victim, it communicates that your value is not based on your dignity as a human person. Your value is based on the sexual role you play, without your consent, for the person harassing you. It is diminishing: It reduces you from a full person to an object for use by the harasser. Healthy sexuality does the opposite. A healthy sexual relationship affirms agency and dignity within the vulnerability of desire.
There is a spectrum of inappropriate harassment. Al Franken’s grope and Matt Lauer’s locked door are different. But everything along the scale communicates the same message: I have the power to lock you down, the power to make you the object I want. It is terrifying and humiliating.
We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean.
As a teen, I laughed when it happened to me, when I felt that terror and humiliation. I thought something was wrong with me for being uptight. We live in a society that tells women and girls that the tug of dignity we feel pushing back against the narrative of our sexual objectification somehow makes us crazy or mean. Our social norms for women uphold the violation of our human dignity. These norms instill in us the pernicious beliefthat we reach the fullness of our humanity when we are treated as sexual objects.
2. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of Participation
The complement to the principle of human dignity in Catholic social teaching is the notion of solidarity. The assurance of individual dignity rests on protections guaranteed by society. We often think about this in terms of the common good: the idea that every person has a right to receive from society those things that are necessary to maintain their dignity.Water, education and health care are all examples of things C.S.T. holds up as common goods.
But C.S.T. offers a less-talked-about and even more revolutionary component of solidarity than the common good: participation. Participation is the idea that every person has the right to contribute to society as an aspect of his or her dignity.In other words, not only does everyone have the right to get what they need (common good); in order to fulfill one’s dignity, everyone must be able to give as well. This is not to say that everyone needs to be a nurse or a social worker. It is simply to say that human dignity flourishes when one is able to participate in society, whether as a waiter or builder or banker.
Sexual harassment happens everywhere: walking down the street, at home and online. The place where our national “reckoning” is happening, however, is at work. A study by the online journal of Sociologists for Women and Society showed that 80 percent of the surveyed women who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment also said they changed jobs less than two years after the harassment.
In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex.
This provides us with an answer to the question of why sexual harassment happens. In the workplace, sexual harassment is not really about sex. The natural expression of male sexuality is not violent. The reason men express sexuality violently in the workplace is that women are a threat to male dominance. The goal is to intimidate women and remind them of where exactly they stand in the power structure. By taking away women’s humanity, men take back their workplace dominion.
3. Sexual Harassment is a Violation of the Dignity of Work
C.S.T. argues that work itself must be dignified. This does not mean you need to be doing something prestigious; quite the opposite. It means that whatever you are doing to participate—fixing cars or computers, teaching first graders or leading business meetings, cleaning an office or performing surgery—you should be able to do your work with dignity. An employer should guarantee reasonable hours, provide a safe work environment and pay a just living wage with which one can support a family. Dignified work enables a person to participate and flourish.
The headline stories in the news around sexual harassment have been about women who are, for the most part, white and who work in elite circles: prestigious newsrooms, movie production companies and political bodies. Many of these women were able to walk away from their jobs. While it is a violation of C.S.T. when women are harassed out of participation, it is still a privilege to be able to choose not to participate.
The maid at the hotel may not be coming for your job, but she still needs to be reminded grotesquely of her place.
For the poor, particularly those who work in the service industry, retail, restaurants or domestic work like cleaning and child care, there is no other option but to remain employed. This kind of work, often in intimate and less regulated settings, is plagued with sexual abuse. Such work is often done by women of color, women whose bodies have historically been treated as open sexual property—a profound and ongoing violation of human dignity. At the intersection of this historical and political reality, sexual abuse thrives today. The maid at the hotel may not be coming for your job, but she still needs to be reminded grotesquely of her place, while her harasser reminds himself that the power to take defines his humanity and place in the world.
Naming the Lie
All three of these violations of C.S.T. arise from the same lie, one even deeper and more fundamental than the lie to women that the fullness of their humanity is in their sexual value to men. The lie is that male libido is uncontrollable, that the desire to take is natural. Our social norms for men tell themthat they reach the fullness of their human dignity as insatiable takers. Kindness, accepting refusal, mistakes, failure, trying again, tenderness: These are not acceptable ways of being a man. They must take.
Our current president represents the apex of what it means to be a man in this mindset. This leads to violence by men all over our nation. Ironically, this imperative to take, to harass, to violently turn the world into their object, robs men of the experience of the fullness of their own human dignity.
C.S.T. helps us see and judge our social reality, a reality plagued today by sexual harassment. It can also help us discern the world God wants for us, one in which men conceive of their humanity as grounded in fostering rather than diminishing the dignity of others—and one in which women flourish as we participate in society on our terms, with dignified work.
Take one topic at a time. Try tackling the news and the sex angles separately. Young children have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. But you can begin to teach them about the news, and that what they see and hear on the radio, TV, and other devices is information about what happened in the world. Learn more about how to teach media-literacy skills to preschoolers.
There’s no reason to talk specifically about sexual harassment with very young kids unless they ask about it. If they bring it up, be prepared. These tips can help you talk about sexual harassment with kids from preschool into early elementary:
Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions. This buys some time and lets you know what information you need to correct, what you can skip, and what you need to focus on. Ask questions such as: “Where did you learn that phrase?,” “What else did you hear?,” “What do you think it is?,” “Why do you think that?,” and “How did it make you feel to hear that?”
Remain neutral and reassuring. When young kids sense that the important adults in their lives are angry or upset, they can sometimes feel like it’s their fault. It may seem obvious to you, but it’s worth telling your kids that you’re not mad at them. Say things like: “It’s always OK to tell me something even if you think it’s something bad.” “This is a tough topic, but I’m glad you asked me about it.”
Be truthful but don’t over-explain. You don’t have to offer kids anything more than what they need to know to satisfy their curiosity. Use terms they’ll understand — for example, “bully,” “private,” “private parts,” and even “making babies” if your family uses that phrase. Say:“Harassment means bullying. Sexual harassment is when someone talks about their own or someone else’s body or private parts — but not when it’s appropriate, like at the doctor. Sometimes a sexual harasser will touch or hug the other person without asking permission.”
Explain why it’s on the news. Even with small children who don’t have a grasp on the concept of the 24-hour news cycle, it helps to put matters in context. Otherwise, the constant news coverage can make them feel overwhelmed and confused. If you can, keep the news turned off when young kids are listening or watching. Seek out age-appropriate news sources instead. Say: “Sexual harassment is against the law — just like taking something that doesn’t belong to you. The people in the news may have broken the law.”
Help them protect themselves and others. Take the opportunity to reinforce lessons around bullies and boundaries. Remind them their bodies are their own and no one has the right to talk about them or touch them in any way that makes them uncomfortable. If your child’s preschool or elementary school has a policy about students not touching other students, you can talk about why that’s important and what happens to other students who can’t follow this rule. Explain that they also must respect other people’s right to keep their bodies private. Say: “If someone says something about your body or touches you or if you see someone bullying someone else, you should tell them to stop and tell the adult in charge.” If necessary, explain that your kid wouldn’t get in trouble for telling, even though bullies say they shouldn’t tell.