How to Talk About (Even Embrace) Our Kids' Plugged-in Lives

Screen time is the latest parental obsession. But experts say there are ways to stop worrying. 

talking with teen 1

The thing that keeps me from thinking I’m such a negligent parent, circa iPhone X, is my confidence that my peers suck at the technology-monitoring part as much as I do. I’m sure they’re just as bad: not stopping their kids from being imprisoned by their devices, letting them join Facebook before the legally allowed age of 13, capitulating to Fortnite for unfathomable stretches of time—and to Grand Theft Auto at all, even though these were lines in the sand they once swore they would never let their kids cross. (Our boys dressed up in adorable button-down shirts and bow ties and made a full-fledged presentation, with graphs and research—yes, plucked from the Internet—detailing why fears about GTA’s horribleness were unfounded, at which point my wife and I, charmed and impressed, did what we always do: cave.) And why are my wife and I unable to take a stand? Because, in the end, we don’t know how. And, to be honest, we don’t even know if.

Why should we try to stop our kids from spending so much time on screens? Because we hear about the disturbing trend lines. Because of the correlation between the amount of phone use in teens and depression and other mental health issues. Because we’re sure it’s screen time that’s causing so much childhood obesity and crippling our kids’ ability to make eye contact, conduct a conversation, read a book-length book, sit still, build a fire and open a can of Spam in the woods; to sleep peacefully. 

Look at the new books geared toward us defeated parents, from Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked to Jean Twenge’s important study (whose title you might imagine few supposedly attention-span-challenged Gen Zers can ever get to the end of), iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. 

A rash of news stories over the past year have reported on Silicon Valley parents who severely curtail screen time for their own kids. If  you argue that there are ways to parent positively and happily about tech issues, is that just a sign that you’ve drunk the Kool-App?

Hit Refresh

This all feels so familiar to me. That’s because I’ve been through this before, as a kid and a teen myself, when many of the same supposed dangers of TV screens and technology were overwhelming another generation of parents, including mine. And my siblings and I happened to have a somewhat singular view of it all.

A few decades ago, my father, Neil Postman, was America’s best-known "critic” of television and its effect on the culture, particularly on children. His 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggested that the dynamics, “grammar” and economics of  television were turning us into a perpetual audience, voracious for constant entertainment and visual stimulation. (Yes, this was decades before Instagram Stories.) Readers of my father’s work often asked my brother, sister and me, “Do you guys actually own a TV? Are you allowed to watch? How much? Which shows are off-limits?”

We did watch, close to the average amount for an American family back then. But we also always had a sense of what made TV TV—that is, it was all about the commercials. The companies that paid for the commercials cared, first and last, that you watched, and as much as possible. We definitely loved our favorite shows but, because of my father’s influence, our catatonia ran only so deep.

Find the Forces for Good

In fact, my father was never anti-TV. He was a critic of unthinking, passive TV consumption. He thought we ought to ask basic questions about what we were spending so many hours doing so we could figure out, on our own, if it was actually making our lives better. He was often derided as a Luddite, accused of wanting to turn back the clock. But no, he mostly wanted us to address how life had changed rather than just letting change wash over us—scrutiny-free.

My father passed away in 2003. As much as he warned of a culture being hijacked by illuminated pixels, screen immersion even just 16 years ago was quaint compared to today. Now everyone—including your kid—has one or more dedicated screens almost always by their side, with an infinite number of mostly value-free channels. That’s the downside.

The upside? Screen immersion today is far less passive than TV watching. Yes, there is hope. The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World by Jordan Shapiro, a professor at Temple University, offers a counter-narrative that contrasts with the one most parents hear. In his telling, screens, devices and platforms are not de facto soldiers of the devil. As Shapiro points out, new technologies and media “are void of meaning until we give meaning to them.”

 If you take a historical view, smartphones, apps and social media platforms represent an evolutionary continuum—yes, with their own unique challenges, but also with unique advantages.

Shapiro and other smart observers of the culture have been thinking about how we can help our children maximize the good—or at least minimize the bad—of our omnipresent, indeed necessary, tools. Some parenting tips and perspectives they propose:

Don’t hate the game—embrace it. When did “playing games” become something to discourage children from doing? Yet when the games are digital, we often do exactly that. It’s a “time-suck,” a “mind-numb,” we hear ourselves complaining. “Parents don’t realize quite how communicative most games are right now,” Shapiro told me. “Fortnite is such a social game. You’re engaged in party chat. You’re interacting.” Our typical parent aversion to these games is based on seeing “the device pulling the child away from some traditional conception of  home life,”

Shapiro says. “They see staring at a screen to be isolating, when in fact the computer is acting more like a portal.” 

This kind of play goes beyond stoking the imagination; it helps to develop “so many key social skills—executive function, self-regulation, conflict resolution, the ability to read tone and social cues.” Whether the setting is digital or analog, the playground physical or virtual, play is where kids screw up, fight and get into arguments, enabling them to be better at these things in all kinds of settings.

Then again, “girls and boys use digital media very differently,” says Mary Pipher, whose pioneering Reviving Ophe-lia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls was just reissued in an updated 25th-
anniversary edition. “Boys spend a lot of their time on computers playing games,” Pipher says. “Girls use more social media than boys by quite a lot. And they have more severe psychological consequences [because of it].” 

Get in on your kid’s digital life. In looking at the lives of teen girls today, Pipher and her daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam, conducted lots of focus groups with moms. “Almost all the mothers said they had an agreement with their daughters that they could look at their devices anytime they wanted to—but none of them ever had,” Pipher says. 

Pipher acknowledges that such scrutiny is easier with young children, who expect their parents to be supervising them, while older children start protesting about privacy. Yet just as tween and teen girls expect that their parents don’t want them to go to dangerous parts of town, similarly “you don’t want them going to 

dangerous parts of the Internet.” She suggests that a “less controlling” way for parents to express it is to say, “We really need to understand the world you live in, and that world is primarily digital now.” Another way to say it: “We want to see what you’re seeing.” 

Shapiro agrees that we need to interact digitally with our kids. “With little kids, that might mean just spending lots of time sitting next to them, playing the game, learning together,” he says. As kids get older, it becomes important to model behavior that you’d like to see from them. “Show them what it looks like to have a good text message interaction,” Shapiro says. Or create closed social networks (so-called finstas, or fake Instagrams— private accounts just for your inner circle) that you, your children and others (such as extended family, a sports team, a church group) are a part of and where you can model respect online. Sadly, kids are exposed to enough examples of online bullying; it’s important for them to see what good-natured ribbing is—as opposed to just ribbing. 

“So many things about the Internet and social media scare us,” Shapiro says. “If kids got more mentoring early, the Internet might not feel like a pit of meaningless despair.”

Quit using your childhood as the standard. Do you wish for your kid an experience of childhood like yours? An experience very different from yours? Do you use your own childhood as a constant measuring stick? For example, we parents lament that our kids’ attention spans are so much worse now—but “attention span for what?” Shapiro asks. We may be attributing value to certain traits, or bathing them in nostalgia, when they’re simply less relevant in today’s world. We also set up false equivalencies: If my child would only do less of this unhealthy activity, they’d do more of that healthy one. Sorry to say but, as Shapiro points out, “less screen time is not automatically going to equal more hiking.” In his book, Shapiro recalls Jung’s line that “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” As a teen, I may well have been one of the more reflective TV watchers of my generation, 

but I could still immerse myself in the activity in a way that my father, who didn’t have TV as a young child, never could. And as a parent, I’ve adjusted to the noise my younger son used to generate from the living room (and now his bedroom) as he played hours and hours of Fortnite. Those sounds, I realized, were ones of engagement, strategic consultation, camaraderie, glee.

Focus on people as much as tech. In other words, screen time becomes less of an issue when it’s offset by regular doses of IRL time. So rather than fixating on what we have to do to avoid technology—
“just saying no, or where to put the smartphones after 9 p.m.,” says Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human—let’s find ways to help our kids strike a balance. Rushkoff has several recommendations, including parents encouraging their child’s school to set aside time for students and teachers to interact directly (and make eye contact!), to have more discussions, to find opportunities to work not on the iPad or Chromebook. It doesn’t have to be a special class; “all that social, emotional learning can be done in subject classes,” Rushkoff says. 

He contends that the social anxiety rampant among young people today is likely due to their “lack of practice” at real-world socializing. Pipher agrees, suggesting that any offline community building or direct human-to-human contact—family reunions, reflective conversations—helps kids build a sense of self. (So one more round of whatever battle royale you’re playing, kids—then it’s time for a device-free dinner with Aunt Sadie!) 

Look in the mirror (not at your phone). Sherry Turkle, clinical psy-chologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has conducted studies that show that children are at least as frustrated by their parents’ use of digital devices as parents are about their kids’. “Children say they try to make eye contact with their parents and are frustrated because their parents are looking down at their smartphones when they come out of school or after-school activities,” Turkle told the American Psychological Association. I don’t think I need to say anything more on that. We’re all swallowing hard.