Screened Out: How Tots and Tech Can Work Together

These days, it seems like kids, even very young kids, are as attached to their screens as their parents are – and researchers are worried about the long-term effects of using these potentially addictive devices as electronic babysitters.

But in an age where smart tech is ubiquitous, parents are pinched for time, and screens are increasingly integrated into classrooms, is keeping kids off of screens realistic or desirable? And how much is too much, anyway?

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Joining us to talk about how parents can learn to stop worrying and love the smartphone is Anya Kamenetz, NPR education correspondent and author of “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.”

Below, an interview with Kamenetz. You can also read excerpt from “The Art of Screen Time.”

You’re an education correspondent for NPR, but this is an issue you confess to struggling with as much as anyone. Why do we have such a hard time with this? Is this a worldwide phenomenon?

It’s absolutely global. Smartphones have hit us and we’re still very naïve to the effects. The more wired the country is, the more worried they are about it. South Korea and Japan are ahead of us in how nervous they are about this. Taiwan banned screens for children under 2, France banned screens from schools. But the new rules say the real thing you need to avoid is young kids alone on screens – you want to share that time with them and help them understand what they’re seeing.

(Øyvind Holmstad / Wikimedia Commons)(Øyvind Holmstad / Wikimedia Commons)

Why not just raise kids without screens altogether?

It’s a constant drumbeat. You look at Pinterest and there are all these memes about going into forest, meditating, yoga, people daydream about this world where they’re completely unplugged and it’s wonderful if you choose that, you can choose that in small amounts, but most of us have to work for a living and it’s hard to conceive of a world where you can completely unplug. You should reclaim your time but it has to go into the context of the economic pressure people face and how to cope with this onslaught of being on call all the time. You might choose a career that lets you have a flexible schedule, but that comes at a cost of being connected all the time. I’ve had conversations with parents who say “my son just has a flip phone and I don’t care if he’s angry, I’m the boss” and that’s great if it works for them, but it’s not a prescription, not every parent is up to making that kind of rule.

There is obviously empirical cause for concern, but do you think a lot of this is just a panic?

The moral panic is so repetitive -- if you’re old enough to remember the panic over rap lyrics, you’re remember that it was always about children – children are always the most vulnerable. So I think we do have to look for the empirical evidence. We shouldn’t be worried about screens causing invisible damage, we should be looking for the red flags, like problems with weight, sleep, mood, over involvement with media, and making decisions about our own using that information.

You devoted an entire chapter to gender and class distinctions when it comes to screen time – why?

The judgments we make about what makes a good parent are so wrapped in this hangover about what it means to have women working. You can’t expect the anxiety people have about doing these [parenting] things right to go away. Particularly the story about the woman who is on her phone [while her child is on the playground] – I felt very judged by that story. The phone allows us to be in two places at once. You have to tease apart the different factors in these judgments. Yes, distracted parenting is not our best parenting, but at the same time, the emotion and vehemence we use to knock people down for it comes from someplace else that does not have to do with technology.

Do you think that device manufacturers have a responsibility to make tech less addictive?

There’s absolutely a share of responsibility here on the part of the manufacturers. The more that I learned about context of issue, the more I saw parallels with other industries that have been reined in by legislation, culture campaigns. Like Mothers Against Drunk Driving – there was a variety of things that happened, legislation, public awareness campaigns, that operated on people’s minds to make them think that there’s a different way of viewing this, it can have consequence, I should do things differently. So we’re not going to go backwards, the screens aren’t going away, but they could be changed to be safer. I think they could have tools available in the platforms themselves. Right now parents are using all kinds of workarounds, so we’re doing our best but it would be great if there was a switch you could click that says, I want it to be used in these times and in these ways. The campaign that’s going on now, they’re pointing out that the social media companies have a hard time with their business models because they’re always trying to keep you on the device longer, but the manufacturers don’t care as much as long as you’re buying a new phone. They’d rather you don’t run down the battery, so potentially, there could be a phone that is a minimalist phone. It’s like a car– just like we have antilock brakes or tethers for car seat, you still enjoy driving just as much but it makes it much safer.

Digital Parenting in the Real World

You picked up this book because you are curious, and let’s face it, a little anxious about kids and screens. I am too. I wrote it to help us both get past that anxiety. To cut the guilt, turn down the volume, tune out the noise, and look deeper. Then we’re going to make a plan.

But first, a story.

Late one night in the early 1980s, I was a towheaded little girl in a nightgown perched on the foot of my parents’ bed watching TV. The screen showed a towheaded little girl in a nightgown, perched at the foot of her parents’ bed, watching TV.

On the television within the television, the credits rolled. The parents were dozing. My parents were dozing. The broadcast day ended on the televised television. The national anthem played over a shot of the American flag. The little girl scootched closer to the screen. I scootched closer to the screen.

Then a terrifying mass of green ectoplasm burst out of the screen within the screen. The movie was Poltergeist (1982).

In that moment was born a lifetime phobia.

Not of ghosts. I love ghosts. I even went through a middle school seance phase, appropriate to the bayous of South Louisiana where I was reared. No, I was deathly afraid of closing credits. The fear has faded over time, but to this day, when a movie ends I prefer to hustle up the aisle. When a TV episode is over I have to minimize the window before the Netflix countdown gets to the next episode.

A quarter century later, my older daughter’s introduction to inappropriate content came on the potty. We had tried everything we could think of to get a toddler to sit down long enough to go number two. And as suggested by a number of other parents, the only bribe that really worked was the offer of a short video on our phones.

We found plenty of kiddie-approved potty training material on YouTube: a catchy ditty about washing your hands from PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; a nice instructional skit from Elmo; a hyperenthusiastic Japanese-speaking panda. Then one day, I happened to click on a five-minute cartoon. It was called “Potty Training.” It had mil- lions of views.

It turned out to be an episode of an incredibly filthy, obnoxious cartoon web series, apparently intended for dimwitted adolescents. My daughter loved it, of course, and asked for it again and again.

A quarter century from now, my daughters may be raising kids of their own. If the forecasters are to be believed, we’ll all be plunged into a gently glowing alphabet soup of AR, VR, AI, MR, and IoT—augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and the Internet of Things. We’ll be inhabiting the bodies of avatars 24/7, exchanging GIFs with our sentient refrigerators, and using virtual assistants to ward off telemarketing bots. Digital experiences will be so immersive and pervasive that Yellowstone National Park will look like today’s Times Square. By then the existence of screens as separate entities, with borders and off buttons, will be a quaint, half-remembered state of affairs.

The terrified little girl inside me asks: How worried should we re- ally be about kids and tech? Where is all of this heading? And what should we actually do about it—now, in the “real world,” a phrase that as of the early twenty-first century still has some meaning?

These questions have resulted in the book you’re reading. It’s a book that I wish I’d had when my firstborn daughter arrived: a clear, deeply researched, and nonjudgmental take on an issue that faces nearly every parent today. I hope it will be a good resource for  you as, together, we try to navigate the rocky shoals between fear and hype and untangle the growing role of digital media in our family lives, and in our lives, period.

I’m not presenting myself  to you as an unassailable expert. I’m just a parent, one with a solid research toolbox, trying to work this stuff out as best  I can. I’ve been writing about education    and technology for  over a decade. I became  a parent in 2011. I belong to the first generation of parents who grew up with the Internet. And I’m now raising two members of the first generation growing up with screens literally at their fingertips.

Children today first engage with digital media at the average age of four months—or almost as soon as they can focus past the end of their noses. In the 1970s, the average age was four years.

According to a Pew survey in 2015, almost half of parents of school- aged kids say that their children spend too much time with  screens. On average, children in the United States spend as much time daily with electronic media as on any other waking activity—including school.

Astonishing. But so what?

As parents, we find ourselves without traditions or folk wisdom— or, crucially, enough relevant scientific evidence—in answering that question. Traditional authorities, covering for real gaps in knowledge, fall back on tired tropes.

I think the self-proclaimed experts have let us down in our attempt to make sense of this incredible new reality. In the absence of Grandma’s advice or a wealth of up-to-date research studies, the source of knowledge that we consult to resolve not only these conflicts, but seemingly every question and hiccup in our children’s lives and our own, is, ironically, the Internet. Dr. Google is the new Dr. Spock.

But the digital information ecosystem that we’re all living in has an inherent bias toward clickbait. That means the existing books, articles, video segments, and blog posts out there about kids and screens all seem to portray worst-case scenarios, to push our buttons so we will keep pressing Like, Share, and Play.

And that in turn means that the crucial questions of digital parenting aren’t only about our kids. They’re about our use of digital media too. Are you embraced by the virtual village or menaced by the virtual mob? Is the phone a magical work-life balancer or a constantly bleeping attention-sucker?

Some of this tension is not new. Moralists raised the alarm over radio, cinema, and then television, all of which in their turn arguably changed childhood just as much as, or even more than, today’s tiny screens.

But today’s devices are mobile, meaning we’re bringing them every- where all the time, and they have touchscreens, making their interfaces intuitive even for infants. These two new aspects have intensified existing anxieties about the influence of older media like television and video games, with their power to lull, to obsess us, to “overstimulate or… inappropriately stimulate developing brains,” in the words of pediatrician Dimitri Christakis, and to transmit messages to our children in our homes that are out of our control as parents.

In the twenty-first century, few parents escape without considering their children’s use of screens. It’s part of our model of what makes a good, conscientious parent. If you don’t ration and control screen time like candy, you can at least have the decency to act guilty about it. But is screen time really the new sugar?

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for NPR. This is an adapted excerpt from The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life by Anya Kamenetz. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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