In her new book, “The Art of Screen Time,” Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s lead digital education reporter, tackles possibly the toughest question facing today’s parents: how to manage kids’ use of technology. Kamenetz looks at the latest research about the impact of screens on kids’ well-being and makes the case that rather than viewing technology as a boogeyman that will doom our children, parents should be clear-eyed and realistic about the limits they set. In a recent interview, she discussed the book and her belief that there’s value to be found in the opiate of the masses. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q. Parents have been so inundated with warnings that screens are toxic and evil. Your book takes a different tack, recognizing that technology is a reality of modern child-rearing and offering suggestions for managing it. What are the main messages you hope parents will take away from the book?
A. TV’s not radon gas. It’s not an invisible silent killer in your home where suddenly you’ll be tested and find the kid’s future has been destroyed. It’s definitely an environmental factor, but it has observable effects. You need to make decisions about its use based on those effects. People say, “My kid doesn’t want to turn the TV off or has a fit when they have to stop iPad time because they’re getting inconsistent messages from me.” It sounds like you have a problem because you described the problem to me, so you know what to do.
Q. It sounds like you’re saying, keep your eyes open.
A. Be empowered as a parent. A lot of these things are common sense. There are some things that escape parents’ notice, such as the interaction with bedtime. You may say, “My kid isn’t tired, he’s watching TV.’’ The TV is stimulating the kid. A second thing like that would be the effect of background television, which is still very common in American households. I point that out not to shame anybody. It may be adding a level of interference or distraction in your home that’s easy to overlook. It may be interfering with language acquisition.
Q. In what ways do you see screen time and technology as a potential positive for parents and children?
A. We all use digital media. It helps us learn about the world; it helps us connect with others; and it helps us be creative when we’re making media or engaging in sharing what we’ve created. To the extent we’re sharing those functions with our kids — learning, discovering, sharing, and creating — that’s good. It involves a lot more active involvement than we’re used to thinking about with screens. Whether you have a toddler or teen, when you’re having a conversation with them or engaging alongside them, that’s a net benefit.
Q. You talk in the book about parents modeling a healthy approach to screens, and the research on babies’ reaction to their parent’s blank face. Can you explain your perspective?
A. I realized I couldn’t talk about kids and screens without talking about parents. We are creating the environment our kids are growing up in. The research on distracted parenting is very small but it’s worrisome. If there’s anything taking your attention away from your kids, whether you’re depressed, overworked, or stressed out, kids feel that. It can affect attachment. When someone is stressed out at work and the phone is the conduit, if they’re depressed and using social media to be in a cycle instead of connecting with friends, that’s going to exacerbate it. The parent isn’t really caring for herself.
Q. Can you talk more about the power of joint attention, and how interactive screens — and adult mediated screens — can mediate the negative impacts on children’s learning, mental and behavioral health? What are the scientific findings in this area that struck you as important for parents to know about?
A. Erica Austin studies parental mediation. She found that college students who recalled their parents laughing at beer commercials were more likely to drink heavily. On the positive side, if you remember your parents talking about the news, you were more likely to be civically engaged as a college student. Whatever you might be doing as a parent in the home with media, your kids may be forming an impression. They’re always picking up on everything we do.
Q. Looking into the future, how do you see advances in technology like virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things shaping our experience and forcing us to rethink what constitutes screen time? How should parents prepare for this reality?
A. The notion of screens as being bounded and escapable is ending, that’s the crazy part. It’s everywhere all the time, truly everywhere, truly all the time. The scary part of that is obvious: You’re not setting limits any more because your whole house is alive. The benefit is that it does interact in 3-D space. With Alexa, instead of picking up your phone and cutting off a conversation, you’re asking a question. We have to update our strategies, but we don’t have to update our values. If we have an understanding that it’s good to connect in 3-D space offline, we’re going to have to protect those spaces. There are opportunities for engagement. We don’t want our kids to have unmediated relationships with bots.
Q. Is there anything you are worried about people drawing from this book or mistaken conclusions you hope to avoid?
A. I find myself to be uncomfortable answering the questions about whether parents should be reading their [child’s] text messages and what age should kids get a phone. There’s a premise to that question that makes me uneasy, and I have to do a lot of framing. Why does surveillance feel OK when it’s your kid? Why do parents feel justified doing this? I use the analogy of probable cause and the fourth amendment. The cops need a warrant to think there’s something they are going to find. That seems a fine standard to apply. Young kids need a thoughtful approach.
Q. What are the positive things that can be done with screens?
A. I find pop culture to be a totally fun and low-stress way to interact with your kids, especially when it seems that you might be losing them. Technology turns the tables and makes the parents into students, where kids are the teachers and mentors. That’s a really nice dynamic to have with your kid. Try asking your kid to teach you or show you something and see where it goes. I would apply that to setting balance too. “Hey, I think we all could work on having our devices down more when we’re at home, can you help us think of some ways to do that?”
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