Meet the tech evangelist who now fears for our mental health
Belinda Parmar was a passionate advocate of the digital revolution – but has started keeping her family’s smartphones and laptops locked away to protect her loved ones. Is she right to be so worried?
In Belinda Parmar’s bedroom there is a wardrobe, and inside that wardrobe there is a safe. Inside that safe is not jewellery or cash or personal documents, but devices: mobile phones, a laptop, an iPod, chargers and remote controls. Seven years ago, Parmar was the high priestess of tech empowerment. Founder of the consultancy Lady Geek, she saw it as her mission both to make tech work better for girls and women and to get more girls and women working for tech. Now she wants to talk about the damage it can cause to our mental health, to family life and to children, including her son Jedd, 11, and daughter Rocca, 10.
Parmar made her living and lived her life through these devices, so what happened to make her lock them up? Why did this tech evangelist lose her faith?
Strong women run in Parmar’s family. She tells me her mother raised her and her sister alone after separating from their father when Parmar was two (she’s now 44 and recently separated herself), while her grandmother, who had four children, ran her own business, a recruitment firm in Mile End, east London. She grew up believing anything was possible, which is why she felt driven to start Lady Geek when she was 35, after a man in a phone shop tried to sell her a pink, sparkly phone. “That was the way technology was sold and I thought: ‘This is ridiculous.’ I was so angry that I went home and started a blog,” she says.
The blog was called Lady Geek, and it launched a national conversation about sexism in the tech industry. Parmar left her job in advertising to turn it into a business, advising tech companies how to make their products better for women, and going into schools to encourage girls to go into the industry, for which she was awarded an OBE. “For me, tech was a leveller,” she says. “You didn’t need money, you didn’t need status; it was an enabler of a more equal and more diverse society. This tiny bubble that most of us lived in had been popped and that was wonderful. That still is wonderful.”
But certain aspects of her relationship with technology were not so wonderful. “I’d wake up and look at Twitter,” she says. “I had two small children, and the first thing I should have been doing was going to see the kids, but I’d be looking at Twitter.” She realised she was using social media for validation, to feed her ego. She began to think: “If technology is an enabler, why am I just using it for things I don’t like about myself?”
As her children grew up, she started to be disturbed by her son’s apparent compulsion to play video games. “Technology takes parents out of control. I can’t compete with an amazing monster, that level of dopamine. He doesn’t want to eat with us, to be with us, because it’s not as exciting,“ she says. She bought a Circle, a device that allows you to manage the whole family’s internet access, controlling which devices are online at which times and what they can view. “My son hid it,” she says. She tried to turn the wifi off, but he stood guarding it, blocking her way. She still does not know where the Circle is. “In theory,” she says, “if you’ve got compliant children, this would be perfect.” Perhaps that is why her combination to the safe, with his devices and hers, is 12 digits long.
She has reason to worry. When a friend’s 12-year-old son showed signs of being addicted to video games, Parmar at first shrugged it off. Then he refused to go to school because he wanted to play all day, and then he spent eight weeks in a psychiatric institution. “He’s 15 now. Nothing’s changed. He still won’t go to school,” she says.
Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, has spent 30 years studying technological addictions; he was the first to use that phrase in 1995, to describe “excessive person-machine relationships”. “All behaviour is on a continuum from absolutely no problems at all,” he says, “through to recreationally enjoying something, to excessively enjoying something, to problematic and then addictive and pathological at the far end. For someone to be genuinely addicted to technology, that technology has to be the single most important thing in their life – they do it to the neglect of everything else – and very few people fulfil that.”