Digital Thriving: Like Driving?

There are countless metaphors used to explain the role technology plays in our lives. We often hear people compare tech to tobacco, or even harder substances like cocaine.

These metaphors tap into something resonant for many of us, yet they also fail to account for any of the hope and social good that technology provides. They also imply that we should simply abstain from tech, and that any use by young people is fundamentally detrimental.

We believe this is neither practical nor true. What’s a better metaphor?

What if we regard our society as still in the early days of figuring out how to use digital technology? This pushes us to consider what kinds of supports, safeguards, and skills are needed. What kinds of special considerations are warranted for children, and what kinds of guardrails will help us all?

Imagine the earliest days of automobiles. Cars, on the one hand, transformed the speed with which people and things could move about the world, dramatically changing everyday life. Cars also brought real risks and a host of looming questions. Over time, industry addressed these risks by introducing safety interventions. These efforts were often guided by policy changes and research on key features that needed to be integrated or regulated.

A series of three hand-drawn images representing historical automotive safety measures with timelines. From left to right: A 1930s-1950s driver's license with a portrait and signature, a 1970s 'SCHOOL ZONE' road sign, and a 1980s depiction of car seat regulations showing a child in a safety seat.

Still, some features lacked nuance and created unintended consequences. Car horns signal danger and also rage; speed bumps slow fast drivers but also ambulances. Today, we have a whole infrastructure that operates across many levels of society to make driving a better and safer experience. Industry innovates, with boundaries.

We’ve been here before, and we also haven’t.

Social media, smartphones, video games, and artificial intelligence aren’t the first transformative technologies we’ve seen.

There’s s something different here though —

  • The pace of change.
  • The 24/7 access.
  • The unknown ramifications.

Plus —

  • There are more people using social media than people who drive. 4.9 billion people are using social media. That’s over half of the global population.
  • People use social media much more often than they drive. For example, teens spend an average of 8 hours and 39 minutes on entertainment screen media daily. It’s much less likely for a teen, or anyone, to drive 8 hours everyday.
  • Cars are primarily designed for transportation, whereas digital technologies – like social media, streaming, gaming, and artificial intelligence – can be used for many purposes.

Acknowledging what’s familiar and different helps us navigate the inevitable twists and turns that are ahead.