Your Children Being “Brain Hacked”?(Pedcast)


Still not sure about if or when to get your children a smart phone or allow them access to social media? Dr. Paul Smolen here and I’m about to make that decision a little easier for you. In today’s podcast, I am going to give you my own insights as well as the insights of tech expert Roger McNamee, an insider in the creation of Facebook.  He has an interesting perspective about the power these tech giants have over your children.   He introduced me to the term “brain hacking technologies” that he says were designed to maximize and sustain the attention of both you and your children. Don’t you dare even think about not listening to Are Your Children Being “Brain Hacked”, a vital edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics.

Musical Introduction

What is Brain Hacking?

I have a link to Mr. McNamee’s full article in USA Today so you can read it for yourself, but I am going to introduce you to some of his insights in today’s pedcast. Every parent needs to take note of what he and many other experts think. Long time listeners of Portable Practical Pediatrics will recognize some of the themes, we have talked about them many times in previous posts. Here are the big ones from Mr. McNamee’s USA Today article:


Point # 1: Facebook took their lead from the gambling industry, using their techniques to “addict” its users to their content. I’m quoting from Mr. McNamee’s article now, “Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google-most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary-produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long-term user.“ The companies running social media are in the business of grabbing the attention of your children and they have learned to do it very effectively. Many of today’s children are becoming consumed by their smart phones, social media sites, and on-line chatting. You know this is true. Just go to any restaurant and watch the older children during their time there. They seem to be more focused on the texting and chatter in cyberspace than engaged with the people sitting right in front of them. And it doesn’t just happen when they are with their families-the same behavior occurs even when they are with their friends. For this generation, social interaction seems to be much safer and preferable digitally than face to face. Whether it be video game, virtual athletics, a conversation with a friend, or flirting, social interaction seems to be happening for today’s children virtually-separated from the people they are interacting with. Children seem dependent and addicted to these devices.


Point # 2: Big Internet companies like Google and Facebook know a lot about your children. Each word your child chooses to use on Facebook reveals things about your child’s education, socioeconomic class, buying habits, favorite stores, wants, and desires. Knowing these things, allows the tech companies to target your children like a cruise missile closing in on its target. As your children’s wants and desires change, so does their data and marketing campaigns social media giants focus at them. Your child’s online behavior allows these media giants to know what makes your children tick and leverage that information to their own advantage.


Point #3: Once addicted, Internet companies can manipulate the moods of its users with the “News feed” it chooses to expose your children to. Your child is having a day when they are angry at authority figures in their life, we have a news feed for them that will justify and intensify those feelings. Your child is feeling depressed or sad one day, advertisers can take advantage of that by marketing products and services to them that will resonate with those feelings as well. The point is, once the addiction has occurred and the supplier of the digital content know your children’s motivations and interests, your children becomes susceptible to the influence and manipulation of others, who often wish to sell them something or influence them in some way. Not a good place for your children to be.

Advise about managing your children’s digital life

You can see that allowing your children to have unfettered access to digital devices (smart phones, computers, tablets etc.) is a serious decision on your part that you need to consider carefully. But also understand that you have a choice and ultimately, you are in control. In fact, I would say that you must be in control. What’s the old expression, measure twice, cut once.  Once you have granted your children free access to the online world, it will be very difficult to take it away. My advise; consider the decision to grant your children unchaperoned access to the Internet very carefully. To help, here are the AAP screen guidelines for children.  Additional resources include a group called Common Sense Media and a Charlotte based organization called Families Managing Media. I think you will find all these resources helpful.

So, let’s get started helping you think this through. There are two big questions when it comes to your children and digital technologies-the questions of “Do I grant access” and if I do,  “When and with what restrictions“.  To answer these questions, I always like to consider the extremes. By examining the extremes of a decision, I find it easier to make tough decisions. So first the question “do I grant access”?  Here the extremes are between total denial of access to digital technology and unrestricted, do as you wish use. Neither of these choices are very satisfying for most parents so the answer will be somewhere in between. Defining that point will be difficult and different for every parent but at least that may give you a starting point.


Assuming you have decided to provide your children with digital technologies, the question of at what age, how much, and with what other restrictions do you need to impose arise?  Here is where things get very thorny. If you want to see why parents are currently getting smartphones for their children, at what age they provide them, and what these children are doing with them, check out this Nielsen survey done in 2016.   

According to this survey, the most common age children get a smartphone is between 10-12 years. For me that’s way too young but in keeping with what I see among my patients. Ultimately, every parent is going to need to decide for themselves about age and restrictions. The best I have to offer you is what I would do if I were raising children today. So here goes.

Doc Smo’s Opinion

Ownership of smart phones– Let’s face it, ownership of a smartphone is both expensive and dangerous, as we have just seen. I feel that having possession of a smartphone is not for most children.  For me, the bar for ownership is when they have proven to be responsible, don’t tend to lose things, and have good decision making skills.  You know, when they begin to demonstrate adult like judgment and have earned your trust.  Harsh but true. I feel that before then, having possession of a mobile smart device makes them too susceptible to cyber bullying, sexting, curiosity seeking in dangerous places on the Internet, and interaction with dangerous people.  I know this very much goes against the trend I see with children I encounter in my community but that is my opinion. Check this article entitled “Can You Raise a Teen Today without a Smart Phone“, if you think this opinion is too extreme.

Simple cell phones w/out Internet access– Cell phones, without online access and limited or no texting ability, should be considered for the parent’s convenience and possible a child’s safety. Allowing a child to carry a cell phone does give parents and their children instant access to one another and that can be very helpful as a parent.

Online access via desktops, tablets and laptops at home– All screen activities for children should be supervised by parents, including and especially, social media sites. We were all taught that keeping secrets was bad when we were young, right? Why does that change with online activities? I find services like Snapchat particularly dangerous for children. I think “Cloaked” online activities should be forbidden. Appropriate online parental controls need to be used with these devices and most if not all computing should be done in a public part of your home. Some of the families I care for are in the habit of turning off the Wi-Fi at bedtime because many children will wander on the Internet in the middle of the night. Bottom line-when it comes to online activities, there should be no secrets. You as a parent have a right to know how these devices are being used and that your children are safe while using them.

Final thoughts

Thankfully, not all children are susceptible to “Brain hacking”, but sadly, many are.   Your best strategy for minimizing the dangers these technologies pose is by limiting your children’s access to them as much as possible-but probably not altogether. They will need the skills associated with digital technologies for the rest of their lives. Internet communication is part of our world from here out. But they also need to recognize a dangerous technology when they see it. It is up to you, their parents, to help them understand the dangers and make their Internet experiences healthy ones. Discuss the dangers of online communication with your children frequently. Watch what they do carefully even if that leads to some uncomfortable confrontations. And don’t forget, to set a good example. You are not immune to “brain hacking” either.


Well, that’s if for this installment of Portable Practical Pediatrics. If you enjoy lively discussion about pediatrics and child health, make sure to share an episode with friend or family and leave your email address at my blog, I promise, the only thing I will do with it is notify you of when I put out a new pedcast. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, recording in studio 1E in Charlotte, NC, hoping you are able to put the nix on your children’s dangerous clicks. Until next time.