It’s 20 years since cult movie The Matrix wowed cinema audiences around the world and unleashed a wave of speculation about the meaning of life and the nature of reality. At the heart of the plot was the conceit of the red and blue pill. Hero Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, was offered a choice: take a blue pill and return to his normal, humdrum life, or swallow the red to show him the truth about the Matrix.
As we all know he took the latter, revealing a dystopian future in which humans are controlled by artificial beings, who plug us into an alternate reality while using our bodies for energy. The question is: two decades on, is our obsession with the digital world effectively doing the same to society? And should we be doing more to try and unplug our families from this modern-day Matrix?
Plugged in and tuned out?
Parents are understandably cautious about the growth of digital in our lives. The smartphone is our own personal conduit into the modern-day Matrix. Last year, major Apple investors pressured the company to act after citing studies claiming kids can spend as long as 4.5 hours on their devices each day, not including talking or texting. Various research has been published over the past few years suggesting that teens who use smartphones for several hours per day may be at a greater risk of depression and suicide, while those that stop phone use for five days benefit from improved empathy. Checking one’s smartphone frequently is also linked to stress, according to the APA.
Although kids are legally allowed to download apps, create email accounts and sign up to social media accounts from the age of 13, it has been argued that even this could be too early. Why? Because at that age they are still over a decade from having a fully developed prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain that helps with decision-making and controlling impulses.
There are concerns that online firms are monitoring our online behavior too closely, especially that of our kids. Some believe the situation has gotten so bad that the FTC should step in to regulate. Meanwhile, an overwhelming 90% of kids say they want the tech firms themselves to be more responsible in protecting them from inappropriate content online.
Unplugging from the Matrix
On the other hand, of course, when used responsibly, the internet and digital devices are great tools for socializing, entertainment and education. The key is balance. We don’t want to live our lives without these fantastic opportunities, but nor do we want our families to sleepwalk through life like most of the inhabitants of the Matrix.
Once in a while, it’s useful to unplug, swallow the red pill and do something offline for a change. Consider the following to get your family excited about the real world:
- Tech time-out: Create technology-free times of the day and parts of the house, like meal-times around the table, an hour before bed-time etc.
- Lead by example: It’s no use restricting your kids’ screen time if they then see you glued to your social media account. You have to practice what you preach.
- The great outdoors: Plan fun activities as a family – nature walks, hide and seek, outdoor games, bike rides, even a visit to a water park.
- Learn a hobby: Encourage your kids to spend more time in the real world by learning an instrument, getting involved in sports, cooking/baking, reading – the sky’s the limit.
Lynette Owens is the Founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 20+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens