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The screen time debate is pitting parents against each other

As the backlash against smartphones builds, and science lags, parents are waging a fraught battle with their kids and other parents

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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Before the smartphone backlash, before apps were likened to cigarettes for kids or Facebook co-founder Sean Parker mused that “God knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” or Tim Cook revealed he doesn’t let his nephew touch social media, and before the demands for studies and regulations and shutting down apps, Riddhi Shah was en route to a weekend trip to unplug from tech-ified San Francisco.

It was late 2015, and riding in the car with her husband and another couple, Riddhi, a friend of mine, was many months pregnant, and racked with questions about how she would inhabit her new role as a mom. That makes her the same as every first-time parent in the history of the world. However, the terms of parenthood changed abruptly back in 2007 when Steve Jobs introduced the shiny object that many humans would either spend the next decade staring at or consciously telling themselves not to focus on. Now, parenting has gone, as one pediatrician told me, to “a 3.7 difficulty Olympic dive - up from a 2.8” a decade ago.

Parenting now means having the “smartphone debate” — not just with your kids, constantly — but with other parents. And as Riddhi was about to find out, hell is other people’s screen time policies.

Hell is other people’s screen time policies

Riding shotgun, Riddhi’s artist friend, who was confident in her parenting and not one to mince words, said she and her husband didn’t let their kid ever see a screen in his first two years. Riddhi pointed out that would be impossible: Riddhi was a content strategist at a tech company who had to attend to off-hours Slack and emails. Her husband (riding next to her, silently) was an avid CNN watcher and online news scroller. Riddhi explained that their jobs made it impossible to just give up screens cold turkey once a baby arrived.

Her friend pounced. “That’s bullshit! It’s just a question of prioritizing.”  

Discussions like this one — about smartphones and their effect on people’s brains and mental health — are everywhere now, and as Riddhi experienced, they’re particularly intense when it comes to children. Tech industry insiders and children’s media watchdogs have launched a “Truth About Tech” campaign, pushing to create ethical standards for tech companies, lobbying for government regulation and government-funded research on the effects of all these screens, and advocating digital literacy curricula in schools. Groups like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and scores of allies are demanding that Facebook shut down its recently launched Messenger chat for kids. Shareholders are demanding that Apple study the effects of its phones on children and offer better parental controls. Many of these voices are not your typical professional worrywarts, but former Silicon Valley execs and apostates themselves.

Parents are still the only regulators

But until some massive industry or regulatory reconsideration takes effect — and it may never, given the business interests at play — parents are still the only regulators attempting to set rules for their kids and hashing out best practices with other parents.

Riddhi felt stung by her friend’s response. She’d been sorted into the slacker-parent category while her baby was still in utero. Two years on, her hurt has deepened into envious resentment. She calls the anti-smartphone crowd the “vegans of the parenting world.” “Women who are so ‘anti’ seem like they have all the answers, like they don’t need the technological distraction that mere mortal parents do,” she said. “There’s just morality around this whole technology issue — the equivalent of religiousness. It feels like it has that same fervor, in a way that not many other things do [about] bringing up a kid in San Francisco.”  

I wanted to hear from the stricter side of the parental trenches, so I called a friend who we’ll refer to as Julie. (It perhaps says something about the tenor of the smartphone debate in 2018 that you ask for a pseudonym for fear of rankling friends and clients.) Julie embodies that Northern California species of hyper-organized hippie: she’s a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified interior designer with a musician husband. Her nearly three-year-old son’s screen time is restricted to viewing family pics, FaceTiming his grandparents, and — only when he’s waiting out his mom’s dance class or together with the family — watching E.T.  

In a world awash in screens, Julie’s stickler stance can cause a fair amount of tension. She walked in from work recently to find her nanny looking at a smartphone with her son, disobeying Julie’s ban. Julie didn’t want drama with a woman she considers “like family,” so kept quiet. Likewise, she is growing increasingly annoyed with the friends who, when she visits with her son for a playdate, turn on what they call their “TV babysitter” so they can chat without having to watch the kids. They preempt her judgment by saying, “I know we’re bad parents.”

“I’m not going to tell them they can’t turn on their own TV,” Julie says, in a tone that says she also kind of wishes she could. (The result of this scenario was chaos, furthering her anti-screen conviction: “He didn’t like that his friend was completely glued to the TV. He wanted her attention, and before we knew it, he was pulling her hair and pulling her down. It makes him a little crazy.”) In a Facebook parenting group, Julie sees other parents posting things like, “I’m not one of those crazy people who don’t let their kids have screen time.” Her response: “I do judge secretly,” she says. “I think they’re trying to make themselves feel better… I’m just like whatever, they’re not informed.”

“I think they’re trying to make themselves feel better.”

The arguments against screens usually center on how they affect brain development and the ability to focus. Julie’s information about phones mostly comes from her husband, who read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other before their son was born, which is about the decay of relationships in the digital age. He also tries to keep up with the articles that come out on the subject; he has been especially moved by Jean M. Twenge’s writing about the demise of the first generation raised on smartphones, and Andrew Sullivan’s piece in New York magazine on how he cured his internet addiction with a smartphone-free camp.

But much of the most alarming pieces about phones relies on anecdotes or surveys with unclear causation, like do depressed kids use social media, or does social media make kids depressed? Solid studies on smartphones are hard to find or yield contradictory results. Smartphones are pushing us to “the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” writes Twenge, a psychologist. Other experts say that in moderation, social media can help kids build their social skills and resilience. NPR ran the headline “How Smartphones are Making Kids Unhappy.” The Huffington Post’s take: “How Technology Has Made Our Kids Smarter Than Ever.”

Solid studies on smartphones are hard to find

Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and author of the new book The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, dug into the science, and her takeaway is that the available studies are too limited to give any definitive answers. As she notes, the last major federally funded research on children and media came out in 1982. Since then, Kamenetz writes: “[R]esearchers have struggled to keep up with the onslaught of new devices and technologies. The 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines cite just a handful of small experiments involving touchscreens and young children, for example; no large-scale studies, meta-analyses, or longitudinal studies either. Nor do researchers have access to inside industry information about how game-makers produce the most effective content.”

“I’d love [screen time] to be a science,” Kamenetz added in a recent radio appearance. “But the fact is the scientists out there are telling us there is a whole lot that they don’t know.’

“We” — as in parents — “are a little bit on our own.”  

“We are a little bit on our own.”  

It’s no wonder that, with so much uncertainty, parents are self-selecting smartphone-policy tribes with their own rules.

“I think people bristle at being told how to parent, so it’s a touchy area,” says Sierra Filucci, who oversees the parental advice from the San Francisco-based children’s media watchdog Common Sense Media. (Her staff bio counts among her interests, “bossing people around.”) “On one hand, they want really clear rules. But they want to know it’s coming from a trusted authority.”

More specifically: “They don’t want it from the other mom in the classroom.”

At age 11, smartphones have only entered the tweens themselves, so the research about them is likewise short-term and prepubescent. With that shortage, experts often reach for peer-reviewed studies of those screens with a much longer history — TV — that discern the effects of watching it in excess: obesity, worse school performance, social and language delays, sleeping problems, worse family dynamics. The smartphone backlash crowd articulates logical reasons why smartphones could be like TV, only worse: they’re with kids 24/7, and they’re open to all the content and creeps of the internet; some apps are even programmed to be addictive to our reptilian minds.

Conventions around child watching television took years to evolve — and they continue to do so. Back in the more innocent age of 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put out a policy that recommended no TV for children younger than two. “The original recommendation of ‘no screens before two’ was so clear, so definitive, that it felt really good,” says Filucci from Common Sense Media. “Parents were like, ‘I know what the rule is, and what I need to do to be a good parent.’ They felt guilty if they didn’t follow it.”

Then, after many subsequent studies that showed the right kind of media could actually aid learning — and after critics called for a near-prohibition that is out of step with modern parenting — the AAP revised its policy in 2016. “We were being accused of being net nannies,” says Victor Strasburger, a pediatrician who was a consultant on the 1999 recommendations. “The academy was, I think, concerned that parents weren’t buying into the original recommendation.” In other words: the experts needed to become more realistic.

“The original recommendation of ‘no screens before two’ was so clear, so definitive, that it felt really good.”

The revised maxim wasn’t vastly different in its age recommendations — no screens before 18 months instead of two years — but it became more nuanced, emphasizing a kid’s overall media diet. The AAP said that video chatting shouldn’t count against screen time and could be used with even babies since studies show it allows children to maintain ties to remote family. Also, cap media to one hour a day for kids ages two to five, but with caveats: make it educational programming (PBS is a good bet), no fast-paced or violent content, no apps with too many distractions, no screens at meals or for an hour before bedtime, and parents should co-view media with their kid and reteach the lessons. They still warn against using tech as a soothing strategy in anything but pinches, like long flights. For kids older than five, the policy set no media time cap at all, but instead suggested a family media plan.

Suddenly, what had been a cut-and-dried age restriction changed into a string of parental judgment calls. (Even the length of the children’s policy went from two pages to four.) “Sometimes parents want very specific rules,” says Filucci. “That [rule] changed, and then it was complicated.”

Strasburger says of course more research is needed, yet he defends the available studies as being enough to justify controlling kids’ screen use. “We do have data on the effect of television and movies and music videos on kids, and these devices are simply being used to access to a great extent those types of media,” he says. “We don’t have good information yet on social networking, but research is evolving and it’s coming. We do have good research on cyberbullying and sexting, which are the two areas that are the biggest potential problems.”

“The filters are parents.”

Bottom line: “So we know a lot, and these new devices put media in the hands of kids at too early an age and are unfiltered — and it needs to be filtered. The filters are parents.”

Many in the control-and-filter camp take great pains to say they’re not anti-technology altogether. Kamenetz, the author, suggests this rule of thumb: “Enjoy screens, not too much, mostly together” (a nod to Michael Pollan’s dictate for healthy eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”). Common Sense Media, the nonprofit that advises parents on children’s media, led the “Truth About Tech” campaign with tech leaders unveiled last month. Yet, they are the embodiment of the nuanced approach: “We think technology can be genuinely beneficial to kids if you find good quality content (which is why we rate and review every kind of media), and if they use it in balance with other parts of their lives,” spokeswoman Karen Zuercher said over email.

Still, parents are realizing they can’t filter screens on their own; they need to enlist other parents and schools of the same mind. DeeDee Schroeder, an attorney for Bechtel who lives in San Francisco, gave her two older daughters phones when they were in seventh grade, before she knew the consequences. Now “they will disappear in their rooms with laptops and watch Netflix. I feel like it is too late to reach them.” Not only does she think they no longer listen to her, she’s seen one daughter “disappearing into her phone,” and worries about her careening down a path of anxiety and body image problems, echoing some of the scariest early research on smartphones’ effects on teen mental health.

So Schroeder turned her focus onto her younger two kids, who are instead coming into their tween years as the smartphone backlash is gaining steam, “I’m going to do everything in my power to not let this happen to me again.”

“This is iPhone celibacy!”

Schroeder found out about the Wait Until 8th pledge, which was started last year by a mother in Texas, that asks parents to sign up 10 families in their kid’s grade level who will postpone giving them a smartphone until 8th grade. Schroeder and another mom convinced 15 families to sign the pledge. “I’m like, there’s no one doing anything about this. The government isn’t doing anything. The schools aren’t doing it. We need a community effort.” When Schroeder talked about the pledge at a school meeting about tech use, most parents — many of them working at tech companies — were interested and excited. Fifteen families signed the pledge; not all. One dad, who is the CEO of a tech company, Schroeder says, snorted, “This is iPhone celibacy!”

Schroeder concedes that “Wait Until 8th has the sound of a sex ban.” Still, she insists she’s no abolitionist: “We’re so frustrated with that response.” Given their private school already uses an iPad curriculum, part of the pledge is to educate them about tech — give them rules of the road before handing over the keys. “We want our kids to be more tech-savvy than the average kid.”

Two years after the car ride, Riddhi really hasn’t changed her mind on the impossibility of her and her husband surrendering their screens. Still, they have cobbled together a workable policy: she defers emailing while her daughter is awake, and he limits his CNN sessions to maybe 20 minutes, whereas before “it was the soundtrack to our lives.” The other night, she had to take a nighttime work call to try to convince a job candidate to join her company, while her daughter kept clamoring for the phone, chanting “Picture, baby!” (She wanted Riddhi to take a photo of her that she could immediately view, entranced.)

“Half my brain was feeling guilty about setting a bad example for her. So sometimes it feels like a battle between a career and being a ‘good mom.’”

“Picture, baby!”

Because her daughter seemed to be obsessed with watching videos of herself, Riddhi stopped letting her see them, whittling down her screen viewing to just a half hour of Elmo on weekends. She hopes that’s the right thing to do. “I’d say the potential damage to kids is probably less acute than the damage to parents’ psyches.”

That, she concedes, is based on zero evidence, but the fact it feels true taps into the heart of the parental debate: it’s far from being just about kids; it says just as much, if not more, about parents and their anxieties.

In fact, the AAP policy also includes guidelines for parental screen time, citing studies that indicate that parents on their phones interact less with their kids, may have more conflict with them, and their own use is a likely predictor of their kids’ habits. There’s nothing like trying to regulate your own phone use to drive home just how compulsive our relationships with our device has become.

Where are our parents to set the limits?

Parents don’t need scientific research to tell them phones can be dangerous; they can deduce the ills from their own overuse. Julie, the proudly anti-screen mom, knows social media can make a kid depressed because she herself feels anxious when scrolling through “all these amazing lives” on Facebook, and has to remind herself every moment observing others online is a moment she is not working on her own goals. She has had to train herself, as a parent, to put down the phone, too.

Likewise, Riddhi gets that her toddler’s brain can’t handle a multitude of bombastic kid apps, mostly because she’s a grown woman who feels her own attention is frayed by constant notifications. Setting rules for your kids is easier than attacking your own behavior. Where are our checks and balances? Where are our parents to set the limits? Sometimes it would be an utter relief for mom and dad — or another qualified authority — to snatch the phone out of our hands and set some house rules.