Smartphones and tablets are changing our kids in ways we might not expect or want. Why parents should put some downtime on screen time

Very few parents look at their children and their families and think, “You know what would make my children happier and healthier? You know what would make my family’s lives calmer, warmer and more fulfilling? More screen time.”

There are plenty of completely legitimate reasons why we have come to rely on technology to keep our children occupied. The changes in our family structure, neighborhoods, work lives and education system have all pushed us in this direction. We parents are not blameless for the number of hours our children are on screens, but we are also not living in a vacuum.

We are living in a world where phones, tablets and laptops are ubiquitous and we rarely pause to think about the effects of them.

In the zone

Dimitri Christakis and his team at Seattle Children’s Hospital have looked at the way attention is affected by television, and they’ve concluded that the effects in entertainment (as opposed to educational) television can have a real impact on kids’ attention spans later on.

But comparing the effects of playing on a computer or a tablet with watching television has not advanced much yet. While Christakis and others have started research on the way kids use touchscreen technology, he warned, “Science cannot keep up with the pace of technological advances.” When it comes to our kids, we are in the midst of a “large uncontrolled experiment.”

Let’s just pause for a minute to acknowledge that when it comes to anything else besides technology, most parents would be hesitant to throw their kids into a large, uncontrolled experiment.

Just imagine: “Here’s some food we haven’t tested — no idea if it’s healthy or harmful. See if the kids like it.” “Here’s some new pajamas that may or may not be flame retardant — still experimenting. Wanna try them out?” “Here’s a car with an airbag that may or may not deploy. We’re still working out the kinks.” It’s unlikely that any of these tests would tempt parents. But with technology, they want to be on the cutting edge.

When I talked to Julia Kim — a college classmate who has worked on technology for both the private sector and the federal government — about kids and technology, she suggested I consider the research on slot machines.

Gamblers who were interviewed by Natasha Dow Schüll, a professor at MIT, in her book, “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas,” said repeatedly that winning isn’t really the point, even that money isn’t really the point. It’s being in the “zone.” They’re so engrossed in the games they’re playing they lose track of time.

Though they may not like to admit it, parents know what it means when researchers talk about games putting their kids in the zone. They know because the zone is not where they want their kids to be. They want their kids to be aware of their surroundings, to respond when people are talking to them, to be able to pause a game without having to be dragged away from it. They don’t want their kids to look like they are experiencing slot machines in Vegas.



Breaking the cycle

When it comes to technology, parents must examine not only how they want their children to relate to the devices or how much of their time they want them to spend texting or emailing or gaming or surfing. They need to decide something more fundamental: how their children are going to interact with the rest of the world.

In his book “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids — and How to Break the Trance,” Nicholas Kardaras writes about his experience as a therapist counseling children and teens. He cites research studies from brain scans that suggest tech exposure can “alter brain structure … in exactly the same way that drugs can.”

Kardaras argues that even the “average” kid can become hooked on screens. “How many kids today feel adrift and purposeless?” Kardaras asks. Noting the “hyperindividualist, hypercompetitive” society we live in, he says, if you “mix in a little stress, social disconnect and the seductively addicting escapism of glowing screens” — it’s not surprising that the result is technology addiction.

Jeff Dill, a professor of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, has spent a lot of time interviewing parents about technology. His report, titled “The Culture of American Families,” started off just asking parents generally about their concerns: Did they think things were more difficult when they were kids? Or did their kids have things tougher? Without prompting, parents kept mentioning the issues of technology.

Dill was able to distill the parents’ concerns to a list of seven primary issues regarding technology. Technology, he found:

  • Normalized behaviors that are not normal, particularly the way kids communicated with one another.
  • Made kids grow up too fast.
  • Increased the bullying and mean treatment of others.
  • Made it hard for parents to keep up with what their kids are doing.
  • Distracted from family time.
  • Inhibited outside play and engagement with the natural world.
  • Made it challenging for kids to distinguish between the real world and the virtual one.

At an age where kids are supposed to be learning more about the world around them — both in their physical environment and in their interactions with other people — technology can seem to provide more information, but it often detracts from time spent on other things.

Again and again in my interviews, experts tell me that there is not a single study that finds kids who are not given screens experience problems as a result. Kids without screens don’t exhibit more behavioral problems. They are not falling behind academically. They are not having trouble getting into college or finding employment. They are not losing focus in school or even becoming social outcasts.

Perhaps all this seems obvious, but it bears noting because in our attempts to weigh the costs and benefits of technology, we never get around to suggesting that there are no discernible costs to withholding technology.

In reality, there are abundant upsides to having our kids spend their time on other pursuits. So why don’t the specialists on children and technology — the doctors and researchers, the psychologists and parenting experts — want to talk about the other side of this equation?

There are few voices saying that human interaction needs to be the priority and that the ability to communicate face-to-face with other people is important. There are few voices saying that the skills children need for jobs will still be reading and writing and doing math and thinking broadly and deeply and that using computers is something you can always learn later. Indeed, the programs are made so that a 3-year-old can figure them out.

Moreover, the way we learn from our screens — watching television or reading websites or viewing online videos — it’s all contributing to our “peekaboo” world. Snippets of information come into view, but not for long enough that we would actually take the time and effort to examine their veracity. And then they just disappear again. We absorb so little of what we take in online because websites are designed for distraction.

Our kids have not had the time to learn slowly and deeply before we drop them into this ocean of information that will only wash over them.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that giving your kids a cell phone is giving them the keys to the kingdom. There is a whole world out there that they can now access without your knowledge. That world, which will be constantly beeping at your child, will forever change him. It may change how your child views friendships, how she interacts with the outdoors, how he experiences time alone.

When we hand over phones and tablets to children, we are likely to be changing not only the information they can access, but also their habits, their personalities and their tastes.

And while they may see their online life as a privilege — if not a right — we should be honest enough to understand it as a burden. For the sake of our own convenience and their entertainment, we are giving up their freedom and perhaps even some of their happiness.

Over and over, when I interviewed people who were engineers or software designers, the reaction was the same. Technology is great — and getting better all the time — but it’s not something they had at a young age, and not something they think their kids need now in order to succeed.

They want their kids to have the space to develop their minds and their social skills before entering the frantic world of communication and information that we adults must live with.

What would Bill Gates do?

One of the most frequently passed around articles in the mommy blogosphere reveals that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iPads. Writing in The New York Times, reporter Nick Bilton recalled asking Jobs when the device first came out: “ ‘So, your kids must love the iPad?’ ‘They haven’t used it,’ he told me. ‘We limit how much technology our kids use at home.’ ”

Jobs’ reply left the reporter in “dumbfounded silence.” Bilton, who went on to interview other tech gurus, received similar answers.

In a 2017 interview, Bill Gates said that he didn’t allow his children to have cell phones until they were 14 years old. They didn’t allow phones at dinner, and screen time was cut off well before bedtime.

“You’re always looking at how [smartphones] can be used in a great way — homework and staying in touch with friends — and also where it has gotten to excess,” Gates explained.

It’s not merely people in Silicon Valley who have “seen the dangers of technology firsthand,” as a former editor of Wired magazine put it. It’s every middle- and upper-class parent walking around with an iPhone.

We are all well aware of the effects of too much screen time on our own ability to concentrate and our social interactions. And, even if we give in more often than we’d like, we don’t want those effects for our kids.



Be the parent

Technology affects different kids in different ways. There is no magic number of hours or an internet filter that will ensure your children will never be diagnosed as having an addiction to technology. There have been no studies showing that kids who play one kind of game will be fine, and those who play another will be at risk. There is no single social media platform that ensures kids are safe and well-adjusted.

The only thing that can really affect kids’ relationships to technology is seriously curtailing it. Eliminating screen time during the week, limiting it to a couple of hours on the weekend, picking days to be technology free, putting off the purchase of a phone for a child, ending unsupervised use of technology, postponing or banning the use of social media, monitoring communication on all platforms — these are, unfortunately, the only known ways to keep our kids out of harm’s way.

Many kids will be fine even without these restrictions, and some kids will fall into trouble even with them. But as parents, it’s time for us to stop playing the odds.


Naomi Schaefer Riley is a New York-based journalist. This essay is adapted from her book “Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat,” published last month by Templeton Press.

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