Family & Kids’ Advocate Shum Preston on the Tech Backlash of 2017

Much attention was focused this past year on the impact of social media on the 2016 presidential election, as reports emerged about the use of these platforms by entities linked with Russia to spread false, misleading, or inflammatory political messages. Aside from these revelations about “fake news,” the year brought reports on major data breaches at Equifax and other companies, on the influence of new technologies in the future job market, and on privacy concerns about Web-connected home devices.

How did these developments, and others related to tech, affect the views of parents as they weigh their use of technology at home?

Xconomy posed these questions to Shum Preston (pictured), director of national advocacy and communications for Common Sense Kids Action, the advocacy wing of San Francisco-based Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that promotes the interests of children and families in the areas of media and education.

Xconomy: Do you think 2017 was a turning point in public attitudes toward technology and the tech industry?

Shum Preston: The year marked a turning point for our perception of the technology industry. It seems like consumers really started to pay attention to both the upsides and the downsides of the new technology environment we are living in.

One driver of this trend has been increased debate around news literacy, and how families can access healthy content for their media diet. For example, social and other media allow voters access to a wide range of new sources for content—but some of those sources are bad.

Another driver has been a rise in recognition of how deeply embedded our technology devices are in our lives, and what a profound impact they can have on all of us. We all like to use our devices for entertainment, but people are becoming wise to the idea that we don’t want to pay a price of increased anxiety or distraction for that entertainment.

Government needs to do more, yes, and society needs to continue this conversation. It seems like there is a growing awareness of the need for consumers and families to sort the good from the bad as we look at all the changing options for media and tech in the world.

X: Are you or your organization involved in efforts to make technology work better for consumers, citizens, students, patients, government leaders, nonprofits, etc.? What is that mission, and how is it going?

SP: Common Sense is dedicated to making technology work better for parents, kids, and everyone in a family. Our consumer platform is dedicated to helping people educate themselves about today’s media landscape, so they can make the choices that work best for them.

As advocates, we are particularly committed to helping states around the country adopt digital citizenship lessons as part of school curriculums, to help create a positive school culture that supports safe and responsible technology use.

Schools that formally address the issues that students encounter online today do their students a tremendous service. We need to teach cyberbullying, fake news, privacy breaches, distraction, and all the other issues that kids face.

A strong digital citizenship program can benefit everyone in a community and head off trouble for some of the most vulnerable kids online. Efforts to make technology work better must rely on common-sense regulations.

A key priority of Common Sense Kids Action for both 2017 and 2018 is to protect families from the privacy violations of the wired devices that will (be) given frequently as holiday presents this year. These devices—sometimes called the Internet of Things—are powerful computers that can be very handy, but frequently expose users to unacceptable violations of their privacy.

We are working with states around the country to insist on reasonable privacy standards for these devices, which can be everything from a smart home device to a talking teddy bear. We are optimistic that states are starting to adopt tougher standards to protect consumers, and look forward to working with other states this year to protect more people.

X: Have changing public attitudes about the tech industry made your mission easier or harder?

SP: Public attitudes are quickly changing towards technology. People are getting much more sophisticated about the issue. When surveying parents in our mobilization efforts on what concerns them about kids today, their relationships with technology consistently rises to the top. The upturn in interest and concern is helping us build momentum to make changes.

[Editor’s note: This story is part of a year-end series exploring the current public mood about technology and its effect on individuals and society.

Photo courtesy of Common Sense.]

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