We live in an increasingly digital world ― one in which new smartphones, tablets and other tech goods are practically endlessly available. So how do you, as a parent, navigate what’s appropriate and what’s not for your kids?
Since October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children younger than 18 months should only participate in video chatting, children between 18 and 24 months should watch only high-quality programming in a parent’s presence, and children ages 2 to 5 should be limited to one hour of such programming per day. For kids older than that, the organization suggests “consistent limits on the time spent using media” and encourages parents to experience the technology (shows, games, etc.) along with their kids in order to open a discussion about what they see.
But maybe we need to go beyond setting time limits. Many parents want a deeper dive into the issue. In January, two Apple shareholders wrote an open letter requesting that the company look into and address the impact of technology on kids. Last Sunday, former Google and Facebook employees shared their campaign, in conjunction with Common Sense Media, to teach kids how technology and social media can affect them. Parents and child health experts are also calling on Facebook to remove its controversial Messenger Kids app.
Because we still know so little about how screen time affects kids, it’s hard to determine what appropriate technology usage should be within families. HuffPost spoke with tech professionals to learn what screen time looks like in their home.
Keeping A Balance
Amy Bruckman, a professor and associate chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, has two sons, ages 12 and 14. As many parents do, Bruckman initially tried to keep track of her kids’ screen time, especially their video game use. Then she decided to switch up her focus.
Bruckman’s new plan let her sons choose their own amounts of screen time on the weekends as long as they also read a book for an hour every day, exercised and, ultimately, led more balanced lives. Her plan worked “well beyond” her expectations, she said. Why? They “embraced the values behind the new system” ― that is, the boys came to appreciate the importance of reading, exercise and simply other things beyond technology.
“I also tell them, ‘Look, if you were doing nothing but practicing your musical instrument with every second you had, I would say that was a problem, too,’” Bruckman said.
During the week, the family’s tech use is somewhat different. Bruckman allows her kids to play video games or use their phones after they get home from school and do their homework since that screen time typically doesn’t add up to much anyway. Phones at the breakfast table are fine, but devices don’t come to the dinner table.
Brad Stone, a tech and business journalist for Bloomberg and author of The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World, also strives to keep a balance at home with his 10-year-old twins.
“They don’t have phones, and yet it’s a challenge all day every day,” he said. “They are drawn to screens.”
Stone joked that he also has to fight that “magnetic attraction.” As he attempts to set limits for his twins, he often finds himself getting sucked in by his tech devices.
“Then the kids call me on it and then it becomes even harder to enforce the limits you want to place on them,” he said. “I feel the conflict in my own house and I feel that a lot of parents do, too.”
Stone has no “hard and fast rules” when it comes to his kids’ screen time, but they don’t have computers (they use his for homework and similar purposes). His family also prefers no phones during dinner or at restaurants.
“We want to keep technology out of it,” he said.
For Dr. Neema Moraveji, co-founder and chief scientist at Spire, a company that creates wearable devices to help people track their health, analyzing the way he uses technology is key.
“Personally, I try as much to be aware about whether I’m using technology as a tool or whether it’s using me,” he said.
Moraveji has a 4-year-old daughter, a 1-year-old son and another child on the way. He applies the same approach of thinking of technology as a tool when it comes to them. He and his wife are trying to teach their daughter to be mindful of when she’s using devices.
“My wife and I have really taken an approach of using the moments to teach her, and not even to teach her as if we’re experts, but sharing what we know so she can always be better,” he said. “We’ve done some little things like say, ‘OK, you’ve had some screen time. Let’s not have any for the rest of the day.’ Or we’ve told her, ‘Not at the dinner table.’ We’ve experimented with those things, and we really found that ultimately the core skill is awareness ― teaching the child, showing the child how to build their own awareness in those teachable moments.”
To encourage this skill, Moraveji has one rule when it comes to his daughter’s tech use. When he or his wife determines that it’s time to put the screen away, they don’t take it away from her.
“I let her know, ‘Hey, there’s one more minute, there are two more minutes,’” he said. “What we really want to do is have her decide and turn it off. I never pause it for her or turn it down. I say, ‘Can you please pause it?’ or ‘Can you please turn it off?’ At the end of the day, you’re teaching them to be adults on their own time.”
Pramod Sharma, founder and CEO of educational games system Osmo, has similar guidelines for his 8-year-old and his 3-year-old. While his family makes sure to spend time without devices, they also look at how the time is spent with them. Sharma suggests that devices should usually be enjoyed with other people.
“We should probably make a ‘Healthy Tech Time Pyramid’ like we have for food groups,” he said. “Passive tech time and solo tech time should be done in small amounts.”
As an expert on educational technology, Sharma stresses that parents should consider not only the quantity but the quality of their kids’ screen time.
“I don’t think that creating beneficial physical-to-digital products and supporting limits on screen time are mutually exclusive,” he said. “It’s the quality of the screen time that’s the point ― whether kids are passively sitting in zombie mode or engaged and interacting with each other and the world around them.”
Participating With Them
Monitoring tech use doesn’t mean completely doing away with technology, our experts emphasized. When he was a kid, Stone said, his parents were concerned about how much TV he watched, and now, watching TV seems like a common balancing strategy for families looking to spend time together.
Similarly, Moraveji participates in his daughter’s screen time experience by asking her questions about the programming when it’s over.
“After she watches something, we ask her about it ― what happened in the video, what did the animal do, why did you laugh, and that sort of thing,” he said.
If parents set time limits on tech, it’s vital they follow such rules, too. To encourage her kids to read for an hour and exercise every day, Bruckman does just that.
“Your kids see how you yourself act,” she said. “Your best teaching tool is modeling with your own behavior.”
Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, echoed Bruckman’s thoughts and stressed that screen time with the family can be a fun element as long as it’s balanced with other non-tech activities. She also has an easy tip for parents when they reach for their phone in front of the children.
“One basic tip is to narrate what you are doing when you pick up your phone around your kids ― ‘I’m going to ask Mom to pick up milk,’” Kamenetz said. “This creates transparency and accountability.”
Remembering The Good
And of course, parents should keep in mind all the positive effects of technology. As much as Stone appreciates his family’s limits on tech, he also wants his kids to be comfortable with digital devices.
“As a parent, it’s sort of not clear where you draw the line,” he said. “You want to expose them to the technology tools because it’s going to be important for their future. You want them to familiarize themselves with it and be comfortable around computers.”
Moraveji thinks that many digital games can be helpful resources for teaching kids, as long as they’re monitored. Bruckman recognizes that her son keeps in touch with friends from his previous school through the collaborative play and communication system in video games.
Still, the idea of screen time is “a tough topic,” she said.
“People in the 1950s were panicked about comic books and thought that comic books were going to destroy the minds of the next generation,” said Bruckman. “Every generation is puzzled by their children’s choices of media. I am puzzled by why my children like to watch videos of other people playing video games. I will never understand that. My parents were puzzled by my choices ― that’s just the way the world works.”