Parents Need Screen Sense Along With Common Sense

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By Alexander Howard Your baby needs your attention more than your mobile device. This week, Jane Brody became the latest columnist to express her concern about what information technology is doing to children. In a post on screen addiction at the Well blog, the author and long-time personal health columnist for the New York Times sounds the alarm bell about the amount of time young children are now spending viewing screens and consuming media, given the potential harms that may result.

In its 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media,” the American Academy of Pediatrics cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but computers, tablets and cellphones are gradually taking over.

“Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media. Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.”

At times, Brody’s post makes information technology sound like a virus — “texting looms as the next national epidemic,” she warns — but in a time when apps, games and social media are specifically designed to grab and hold our attention, using various signals, notifications and nudges to bring us back in, that language isn’t nearly far-fetched or alarmist as it might sound.

In turning her attention to technology and development, Brody is updating her long-time focus upon physical health and fitness to encompass the mental health and fitness of our children, at a time when parents are looking for tips for parenting when screens are everywhere.

As a parent of a toddler who spends a lot of time around screens, I’m extremely sensitive to Brody’s concerns and have been questioning when, how, where and whether to integrate technology into our lives and hers. (I look forward to her followup post next week, on parents’ role in children’s use of electronics.) Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time talking to parents, pediatricians and academics about how to incorporate screens into the lives of children. My motivations were straightforward: I wanted to learn about what other parents were doing and what research suggested we do as well.

In that context, Brody shared the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that children under 2 have zero screen time, describing a world in which “preverbal toddlers” are “handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.”

She’s taking the line that many pediatricians do. If you look around playgrounds, parks, supermarkets and buses, however, it’s not hard to find parents and children doing something else. In reading columns like this, I sometimes feel like we’ve gone back to the future, revisiting concerns about the impact of television on kids in a new context. In decades past, though, we could turn off the TV or keep it out of the bedroom. Today, once parents and their children get smartphones and tablets, the devices follow us around in a way that TV never did, with attractions and notifications and access to diversions, distractions, friends, family and knowledge that a “dumb” TV never had.

“The AAP’s recommendation makes sense if you understand the context in which the recommendation is made,” said danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft and the founder of Data & Society Research Institute, in an interview published earlier this year.

When TV was first introduced into most households, it was seen as a social object where the family gathered to watch and engage. This shifted as TVs proliferated and many exhausted parents used the “boob tube” as a glorified babysitter. For a while, there was all sorts of marketing out there telling parents that TVs could be educational. Mostly this involved selling products (like Baby Einstein) that had no proven educational value. As more research came out, we learned crazy things like when people are watching TV, they process food at a rate slower than sleep (hence, connection to obesity). As a result, the AAP started pushing parents to see TV (and, hence, the “screen”) as a problematic part of the household, something to be critiqued and considered. And the push was all for supervision, mostly to make this kind of activity social as opposed to a passive mechanism.

Since TV, things have gotten more complicated. We read books on screens now. We talk to grandma through Skype. We look up recipes for dinner. We play games. And yet most parents are not in a position to assess whether or not something is a healthy kind of engagement or a destructive kind of engagement. Things are particularly tricky with the younger cohort who often obsess over whatever they engage with. (How many times have you read any given Sandra Boynton book? Again? Again? Again?) And all of a sudden, everything gets fraught.

What we have now is common knowledge that the AAP recommends against screens and so we have a massive number of parents out there feeling guilty (or resentful). This is one of many ways in which parenting is regulated and people feel guilty. And the reality is that the issue is not inherently the screen, but the dynamics around the screen that the AAP is trying to guard against. This only gets messier because kids see parents engaging with devices and that creates a mega unhealthy dynamic.

The observation that Brody made that resonated the most with me and other parents was that “technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction.”

As parents, we may focus upon what our children are doing with their devices but not look in the mirror to see how our own behavior and habits are reflected back at us or them.

We also have to show them how to use these tools without being addicted them. (I’ve already learned that my daughter will frequently do as I do, not as I say.) How parents are using screens around their children is critical, with respect to what that use may be replacing. In this context, it’s not so much what our kids are doing with devices but what the parents are NOT doing: giving children our full attention, love and focus. That may mean teaching them how to do things, like build models or sand castles, cook a dish, program a robot, play an instrument, work with animals or tend a garden, or sharing spiritual, social or cultural experiences.

Technology may be a tool or a mediator in some of those contexts, too, it’s there that her column may have lacked some nuance. Building a Minecraft server with your children or playing Minecraft with them has just as honorable a place in present-day society at playing boardgames did in my childhood. I hope to learn how to do that, if she’s interested, along with riding a bike, learning to swim and playing the piano.

As a digital journalist who frequently works out of a home office, I can’t simply leave my laptop and cellphone at the office, but I’m doing my best to put them away when I’m done working. I’ve consciously tried to make books, blocks, paper, pens, puzzles, trains and dolls part of my child’s home environment. I hope that the “screen sense” I model for her will inform her choices and development. I know I need to be better about pocketing the phone at parties and powering it down during dinner. We’re all figuring out what works as we go.

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