Is the Tech Industry the New Big Tobacco?

Lessons from Big Tobacco can shed light on
industries like Ed Tech

“Back then, we didn’t know it was bad for you.”

If we first keep in mind that technology is an industry — with associated corporations beholden to shareholders, not the general public — we can begin to build the framework needed to change how we view and use technology. We need to be conscious of the fact that, ultimately, corporations and even small businesses are driven by profits, not good will.

This is not a bad thing in and of itself; the tech industry — with its related Ed-Tech, entertainment, communications, information, and medical components — creates an enormous number of jobs and helps drive the economy as a whole. But financial incentive does need to be considered. Indeed, it can become a bad thing if messages conceived to drive profits impact health and education.

With the tobacco industry, this kind of realization — that the industry was motivated by profit, not scientific truth — is what helped shift attitudes toward smoking, since it allowed the dangers of smoking to be brought to light and helped the public and health agencies to appreciate that “evidence” denying these dangers was being manufactured.  As such, let’s look at a page from the tobacco story.

Early tobacco warnings regarding health risks were undermined by a powerful industry whose strategy was to create doubt and confusion. They accomplished this by repeatedly sending the message to the public (via the popular press) that there was a lack of consensus about whether or not smoking caused health risks, and by funding “research” at respected institutions with hand-picked unscrupulous researchers whose findings were communicated to Congress.1

Other strategies included aggressive marketing to younger and younger consumers — thereby acquiring addicted lifelong customers — and manufacturing “healthy” (filtered) cigarettes, while simultaneously altering cigarette composition to make them more addictive. Tobacco marketers decried government regulation proposals as both a violation of personal freedom and a belittling of one’s capacity to be responsible for one’s own health. Since then, we’ve seen many of these same arguments and marketing tactics being used in various industries, including the chemical and food and beverage industries.2

The technology industry uses these tactics, too — masterfully. For starters, concerns about screen-time affecting attention and brain development are held at bay by industry-funded research claiming the opposite. The mountain of evidence of screen-time’s harmful effects on cognition appears to be the same size as the evidence for “positive” studies, but only because the peddlers of the studies on positive findings have mountains of money to publicize them. In reality, there is probably a 20:1 ratio of negative to positive studies, and it’s probably higher than that if you exclude non-biased research.

Other health concerns are equally discounted or are quieted by a new spin: just as “safe” cigarettes were made, “healthy” video games and “educational” software are made; worry that screen-time makes us lazy is met with arguments about the stimulating effects of “interactive” screen-time; and concerns about technology making us disconnected and lonely are fought with reassurances that the Internet and social media “connect us all.” Meanwhile, video game designers purposely hook players into games that never end, and electronics advertisers market to younger and younger children, who then become dependent on devices for the rest of their lives. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the infusion of technology into public education has created an ongoing “need” for more equipment and more products, making schools themselves dependent on the tech industry.3

Then there are the parallels regarding “personal choice” tactics. People — and especially Americans — don’t like their freedom being restricted. But how free to choose is a child who has become addicted to technology before his or her brain has finished developing, making the addiction a much bigger beast to tame? We adults determine the environment our children grow up in — but children have no choice.

When suggestions are made to limit children’s screen-time, we are reminded that this threatens our personal freedom, that Americans do not want the government in their living rooms telling them what to do. Yet ironically, at the same time, our children are being forced into using technology in public schools — largely because of government mandates and programs such as the Common Core and Race To The Top— whether they like it or not, whether it brings inherent health risks or not, and whether it helps them or not. On top of that, our children’s data is being mined in the name of education, but in reality it’s used and sold many times over to make more profit. Are Big Tech companies really benevolent, really free of conflict of interest, when they “donate” equipment and software in exchange for contracts to use their technology? With taxpayer dollars, no less?

When tech corporations play to our emotions by selling the promise of individualized education adapting to each child’s specific needs, or of creating “readiness for succeeding in today’s world,” they create an atmosphere that makes us feel we can’t possibly survive without them. This is despite evidence that the majority of kids — with and without special needs — are hurt and not helped by tech in the classroom.4  Since when are evidenced-based methods of learning no longer the gold standard?

While contemplating these issues might make us uncomfortable, it’s important to be conscious of them and to remember how powerful and sophisticated marketing tactics are these days. Be clear about the fact that politicians, governing bodies, and corporations don’t always (or perhaps even usually) have our best interests in mind; that’s just the reality of it. Ultimately, no one cares about your children more than you do. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless; it just means you have to make decisions about your child’s future consciously, take advice regarding the “benefits” of technology with a grain of salt, and make healthy informed choices where you can.

In fact, by doing so, you help others to do the same — which takes power away from deceptive practices, and brings truth to light. The benefits of technology can still be realized, but the health impact of screen-based technology needs to be taken much more seriously, particularly when it comes to our most vulnerable citizens — our children. At the same time, we need to be realistic about what technology can and cannot do, and always be on the lookout for wishful thinking clouding our judgment.

In one of the lecture halls of my medical school, old black-and-white photographs line the walls, depicting a history of the hospital and its physicians.  One of them shows several physicians standing outside a patient’s room smoking cigarettes during what is presumably the doctors’ morning rounds. Everyone got a kick out of this photo — how ironic it was!

My hope is that eventually we’ll have this same kind of feeling about present-day screen-time practices. We’ll see how ironic it is to teach children with methods that impair concentration and creativity, to exercise them with mediums linked to obesity, or to parent them with devices that induce temper tantrums. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Someday, when we see an old picture of kids sitting motionless and glued to their iPads instead of playing, we’ll shudder and make the same remark previous generations did about how everyone used to smoke: “Back then, we didn’t know it was bad for you.”

Adapted from Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time

© Victoria L Dunckley MD, 2015. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. 


1 Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

2 Kelly D. Brownell and Kenneth E. Warner, “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” Milbank Quarterly 87, no. 1 (March 2009): 259–94, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00555.x.

3 Tara Ehrcke, “21st Century Learning Inc.,” Our Schools/Our Selves Winter 2013, accessed October 30, 2014,….

4. OECD, 2015. “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” OECD Publishing, Paris.; Colleen Cordes and Edward Miller, “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood.” (Alliance for Childhood, 2000),; Aric Sigman, “Does Not Compute, Revisited: Screen Technology in Early Years Education,” in Too Much, Too Soon, 2011, 265–89; Anne Mangen, Bente R. Walgermo, and Kolbjørn Brønnick, “Reading Linear Texts on Paper versus Computer Screen: Effects on Reading Comprehension,” International Journal of Educational Research 58 (January 2013): 61–68; Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science, April 23, 2014; Cris Rowan, “10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12,” Huffington Post, March 6, 2014,….