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When politicians, business leaders, journalists and academics came together this year at the 2024 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, they were joined by a pair of experts with UNC-Chapel Hill connections who had a clear message to share about kids, technology and social media: We need to prioritize the health of our children.

“We really need to think about kids’ safety and welfare, and the idea that our brains are not caught up with this new environment that kids spend a remarkable number of hours of the day immersed in,” said Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.

Jim Winston ’81, ’92 (PhD), chair of the Winston Family Initiative in Adolescent Brain Development and Technology, is a psychologist. His experiences as a parent and working in the field of addiction led him and the WInston Family Foundation to make a $10 million gift to launch Carolina’s Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain, and Psychological Development, which Prinstein co-directs. Winston compared the addictive potential of devices like smartphones and tablets to gambling.

“Smartphones are designed to capture attention, strategically built to be overstimulating, with a nearly limitless supply of digital stimuli and enormous addictive potential,” Winston said. “We know that adolescents are incapable, both developmentally and neurobiologically, of managing hyperarousing dynamics, which is why they can’t get into a gambling hall until they are 21 or drive until they are 16. It’s based on an understanding of and concern for their welfare. I believe a similar structure needs to be instituted for smartphones.”

Prinstein and Winston spoke over four days in Davos at a series of panels hosted by Human Change, a campaign to raise awareness and instigate transformation in the way children approach social media and digitization.

During the annual World Economic Forum, Davos becomes a place where an attendee might walk down the street and spot a prime minister, a billionaire and a Nobel Prize winner. But as he spoke at the Human Change House, Prinstein said he noticed a surprising shift among the audience at his panel discussions.

“When they walked in, they left those credentials at the door and listened to us as parents,” he said. “They were remarkably responsive and moved by the information we were sharing about how technology is affecting kids, how it’s affecting the social climate they grow up in, and how it’s affecting their brains and their ability to form meaningful relationships.”

Prinstein recalled a journalist at a major media company who described feeling both fearful and powerless against the “tractor beam” pull that device and tech usage had on his kids.

“They feel like their hands are completely tied in a fight against a powerful force, and it’s very scary for them to feel like there is nothing they can do,” Prinstein said.

Prinstein and Winston told the audience that warning signs are flashing throughout society that there are not enough safeguards to protect children from excessive and unhealthy tech and social media usage. Pointing out that tech companies are incentivized to get users to stay on devices and platforms as long as possible, they used their stage at Davos to call attention to the need for research that identifies exactly how tech usage affects child development over time.

The Winston National Center is unique in launching some of the only longitudinal studies looking at this topic over a period of years. The initial gift from the Winston Family Foundation provided seed money to get started, and now Prinstein says additional support will be needed to sustain and expand this research.

Pointing to the fact that work from the center was cited in the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, Prinstein said this research has gained traction.

“It’s not a bunch of research that will be stuck in some academic journal and disappear,” Prinstein said. “We are having a major impact. This is the center where research is actually turning into action, and I really want that to continue.”

To learn more about the Winston National Center please visit its website.

To support the work of the center, please visit the online giving site, or contact Anne Collins at the Arts and Sciences Foundation at or (919) 962-0108.

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