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I Helped Create the Internet, and I'm Worried About What It's Doing to Young People

At some level, we are all experiencing the Web's toxic possibilities. But as with other toxins, young developing bodies and brains are more susceptible.
Gen Z Development CASBS

"'Breaking up is hard to do,'" Neil Sedaka sang in 1975. Unfortunately for most, it is getting easier. The "Dear John" letter gave way to the "post-it break-up" in a 2003 Sex and the City episode. Now, in the era of smartphones, "he ghosted" is a common dating term: One side of a relationship just goes dark.

We rely on technology to make our lives easier, and technology changes us. I felt this firsthand growing up immersed in digital technology. My parents were pioneers in computing, and the academic community of University of California–Los Angeles was our extended family. My father encouraged me to watch Fortran-language training tapes in high school and often left me messages about my chores in "IF, THEN, ELSE" statements.

I went on to study computer science, was involved in the creation of the Internet, and built a career in innovation, as an entrepreneur and business leader, adviser, and author. I have experienced the push and pull as tech solves existing needs, as discovery keeps driving our imaginations—and as we suffer from the often-harmful byproducts of these advancements. As the mother of a Millennial and a mentor to Gen-Z students, I spend time around young adults. I am concerned about the effects on them, and on the rest of us, that the digital services I helped enable are now having.

Cars, microwave ovens, fast food—convenience has driven innovation across industries for a long time. Too often, the consequences of these disruptions are denied, ignored, or even amplified in the interest of corporate growth and profits. Think nicotine, sugar, and opioids. Digital technology, from online shopping to social media, has taken this challenge to a new level. Making things effortless has become a goal in and of itself. Dominant digital service platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Google, focus on making things "frictionless." They attract and retain our attention to maximize growth through sophisticated psychological tricks implemented via artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that are constantly learning. ''There's an app for that'' has become a catchphrase for young entrepreneurs focused on producing services that make their lives easier.

At face value, this frictionlessness might seem harmless, or even a good thing. Why would we not want tools to help us be more productive, more efficient? But there is a cost. Ghosting may seem like a trivial trend, but increasing anxiety among our youth is not.

Tech addiction is harmful to bodies and psyches. The impacts are harder to detect and less understood than physical health problems resulting from innovation in food science, such as the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup or trans fats. Ending a relationship is not the only place where technology enables and then tempts us to choose the easier path.

Powerful predictive AI algorithms, fueled by our conscious and unconscious behaviors, drive news feeds and recommendation engines that influence our feelings and thoughts. It is easier to watch the next video in the YouTube autoplay queue than to explore and learn something new. Why take the time to read, comprehend, and respond thoughtfully to an email when Gmail will suggest a couple of automated three-word responses?

As our attention spans shorten and we give in to the dopamine rewards of instant satisfaction, we are also losing a tolerance for applying effort or deferring gratification, capacities required for individual and societal growth. Because humans often want to avoid pain or discomfort, it is all too easy, in a state of no-friction addiction, to become unconsciously programmed to avoid anything hard.

The right level of friction is critical—from brakes on a bicycle to how we learn and form relationships. Friction is crucial to critical thinking. Reason acts as a constraint for our worst impulses: an angry tweet, say, or not respecting a relationship enough to actively end it. Ghosting is hard enough to experience. When finally getting over a hard break-up, the ease with which an ex can re-appear in a social media feed after long silence—called "zombieing"—can really set one back. Authentic personal relationships involve dispute, as we build healthy trust (balanced with mistrust) and work through problems. If breaking up is easy, will we continue to take the path of least resistance? As Sedaka's song suggests, "Can't we give our love another try?"

Society and democracy depend on rules, and on compromise: the willingness and ability to give up something for others. Being a parent is wonderful, but it's hard work. Accepting and embracing diversity isn't always effortless; it can be more difficult than dealing with what's more familiar. Human development and growth come from overcoming obstacles; "no pain, no gain" does not apply only in the gym. Google not only gives us instant answers, but with autofill and prompting, we don't even need to take the time to frame our questions. Addressing critical problems from inequality to climate change, on the other hand, depends on our sustained attention in embracing complexity and thinking about others—choosing a delayed benefit for many over short-term convenience for ourselves.

At some level, we are all experiencing this phenomenon, regardless of our age. But as with other toxins, young developing bodies and brains are more susceptible. Development of identity involves paying attention to our inner lives and not seeking escape at the first sign of discomfort. Without a strong sense of self, young people may be more open to manipulation by others, or by authoritarian leaders, or by AI; it is easier to submit than to question.

As we all become dependent on a new stream of products we hadn't known we needed, how will it affect the unconscious intelligence formed through childhood experiences? This emotional narrative goes on to affect adult behavior in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. What are the direct effects as screens become co-parents, co-teachers, and friends? What are the indirect effects as parenting and teaching styles are influenced by adult attention-diverting addictions? How will our sense of self, personal agency and authority, and leadership capabilities evolve?

We should try to answer these questions urgently but carefully. Given the accelerating rate of change, by the time we understand the inevitable effects, it may be too late. Gen Z leaders—parents, teachers, mentors, and Gen Z kids themselves—must become part of the movement for human-centered technology. At some point, as future generations adapt at ever earlier ages to more ''advanced'' AI-driven systems targeting their desires, they will no longer recognize that they are giving up that which makes us human.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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