THE CALL FOUND ME at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night in September, as I stood in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket. “Dad?” It was my teenage oldest daughter, calling from our home landline. “I need to text someone in my class about the homework. Can you tell me where my phone is?”
She hadn’t misplaced it. I had moved it to an undisclosed location, part of an enforced screen diet that my wife and I had put her and her two younger sisters on the day before.
The diet had been born out of frustration and concern. Frustration at continually having to remind the kids to get their homework and chores done yet still get to bed at a decent hour. Concern at the mounting questions from neuroscience about the impact of unchecked screen time on the adolescent brain.
Although we’ve always tried to set reasonable limits, our home is hardly a tech-free zone. We gave our older daughters phones when they began taking the MBTA bus to get to middle school. And we’ve seen how shared media experiences can be a good source of family bonding. That’s true whether we’re sitting in front of the TV watching American Ninja Warrior or The Middle, or crowded around the kitchen computer as one daughter or another cycles us through the latest fare on YouTube.
But as the girls settled into the new school year and complained about not having enough time to get everything done, my wife and I struggled to tease out the role being played by all their texting and other media “snacking.” A weeklong tech cleanse seemed like a useful experiment for everybody’s nutrition.
As it turned out, imposing this diet would put us in good parental company. The New York Times recently broke the news that the late Steve Jobs had been a low-tech parent, imposing strict limits on his own kids’ consumption in the home even as he became the international face of tech’s ascendancy. Same for Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired magazine (“[N]o screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever”). As startling as these revelations may seem, they square with what I’ve found in my own interviews over the years with Silicon Valley luminaries ranging from Khan Academy’s Sal Khan to Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Tech evangelists often behave more conservatively when it comes to their personal lives.
These heavyweights know better than anyone the dangers of too much of a good thing. Research from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than seven hours a day using screen media at home. And that figure no doubt greatly undercounts total consumption, since it doesn’t include time spent texting or using a digital device for homework, and it doesn’t account for the simultaneous use of multiple screens. What’s more, that study was published in 2010. New data expected next year will almost certainly show an increase, just as the average daily consumption jumped by an hour and half in the five years before the 2010 study.
By now, most parents sense that things may be getting out of hand. Still, research also shows that most of us vastly underestimate our own children’s media consumption. One new analysis suggests that more than 45 minutes of screen time a day is harmful. Whether that’s a realistic goal, clearly very few kids inhabit that safety zone.
From the start of our own family experiment, we knew our week wouldn’t be entirely screen-free. The girls would still have their phones during their commutes to school, and they would naturally need some computer time in school and for homework. But the phones would be off-limits at home, general Web surfing was out, and the TV remotes would go into hiding.
I had anticipated low-level moaning from the kids. But what I hadn’t accounted for was the murky ground I found myself in as I stood next to the frozen peas, taking the call from my 14-year-old daughter. That dilemma, which exposed the blurred lines between necessary tech and recreational tech, surfaced on just the second day of the diet. Could we make it through the week without being undercut by a thousand exceptions and contradictions? Did it even make sense to try?
IN THE SPRING OF 2012, a research team from California sent a group of sixth-graders to an overnight camp 70 miles outside of Los Angeles. Before they left, the students were shown a series of photos and silent videos and tested on their ability to detect the emotions of the people in them. Were the subjects happy? Sad? Fearful? Angry? The sixth-graders then spent five days at the camp in the woods, where devices with screens were prohibited and opportunities for face-to-face encounters were bountiful. When they returned to school, they were tested again with new photos and videos. The “after” results were compared with those from before the screen-free week, and against those of a control group of sixth-graders who stayed in school rather than tuning out in the woods.
Would just five days without media boost the kids’ social cognition? The researchers hypothesized that it would, since life for busy teens is increasingly a zero-sum game. “The reality is there is only so much time in the day,” lead author Yalda Uhls of the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA tells me. “If you’re staring at a screen, you’re not staring at a face.”
Their hypothesis was right. The study, just published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, reports that the kids who put their phones down for a week in favor of bunking and hiking with classmates performed markedly better in their social cognition retest while the control group showed little change.
The results will likely resonate with any parent who has sent a child to a traditional sleep-away camp. As one of my daughters told me after she returned from camp this summer, it’s much easier to forgo texting and Instagram if all your peers around you are also disconnected.
Uhls says she and her fellow researchers hope to build on the study’s findings by testing for longer stretches and in other settings. As intriguing as the results are, there are clear limitations to the study. After all, it is conceivable that it was the time in the Great Outdoors, being cut off from normal civilization rather than just screens, that improved the kids’ ability to read social cues. But we’re not about to relocate the adolescents of America to some kind of controlled wilderness. We saw how well that worked out in The Hunger Games.
Jay Giedd, the chairman of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and a former chief of brain imaging at the National Institute of Mental Health, is a leading authority on the impact of technology on the adolescent mind. Rather than trying to wind back the clock, he says, we should face reality. “Better to wonder how to achieve the cognitive skills along with screen time,” he says, “because that genie is out of the bottle.”
Thanks to its so-called plasticity, the mind of a developing child and adolescent has shown itself to be exquisitely adaptable to the changing demands of its environment. This, Giedd notes in a 2012 paper, is quite a contrast with “our closest genetic kin, the Neanderthal, whose tool use changed remarkably little” in more than 100,000 years.
In a recent interview, Giedd elaborates. “Ten thousand years is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and we have gone from living in caves, hunting and gathering berries, to spending much of our time with computers,” he tells me. “Reading is only 5,100 years old, so for most of humanity nobody read.” Today, most of us — adults and kids alike — spend the majority of our waking hours with the written word.
It stands to reason that our kids’ brains might be responding to this new environment of rapid change. The developing brain comes to specialize in what it does most. “More time with screens and less time with people would change the specialization,” Giedd says, though he notes that thus far researchers have found “no ‘damage’ or bad changes in brain anatomy or function” on account of all this teen tech use.
Even so, he says today’s tech-saturated adolescent brain appears to function differently in important ways. It is more visual, less tolerant of waiting, and more stimulated from all the multi-tasking. While teens are doing homework at the computer, two-thirds of them are doing something else, whether that’s texting or checking Instagram or toggling around YouTube. Yet, through research, we’ve come to see that multi-tasking is a myth. Doing two or three things at the same time almost always means doing each one less effectively. One study found that using a cellphone while behind the wheel of a car impaired performance as much as driving while intoxicated. (Interestingly, because almost all of these brain imaging studies on multi-tasking have involved subjects who were 20 and older, Giedd wonders if kids younger than 16, with enough practice, will eventually become genuinely effective multi-taskers, given the plasticity of their brains.)
Neuroscientist and sleep researcher Markus Dworak, formerly of Harvard Medical School, led a study that found adolescent boys who played video games before bed had poorer sleep quality and were less able to recall vocabulary words they had learned prior to gaming. The speculation, from other research, is that this media consumption was releasing a flood of dopamine and altering neurotransmission. Dworak concludes a 2013 paper by strongly advising parents to keep TVs out of their kids’ bedrooms, something that was easier to do before the mobile era when TVs morphed into iPhones.
Despite troubling findings like that, Giedd cautions us not to draw sweeping conclusions. “I don’t think the tech stuff directly damages the brain,” he says, “but it takes away time from other activities that may be healthier.”
He likes to quote a respected thinker’s earlier warning about the dangers of a new technology: “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.” The thinker? Socrates. The new technology? Writing.
COINCIDENTALLY, MY FAMILY’S tech-free week began with two new pieces of technology in the house. We had just recently upgraded our family room with a new ultra-HD flat-screen TV. (Until we figured out how to turn down the settings, the high-definition effect was too intense for our taste, making the finest films all look like the cheesy set of one of those telenovelas.)
The other piece of new technology was a bit less cutting-edge. Our youngest daughter, who is 9, had just come into possession of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, inspired by a children’s mystery book that prominently featured one. When she pointed out that she didn’t own any technology to give up during the family’s weeklong diet, her 12-year-old sister quickly corrected her, pointing to the old Royal sitting on the table.
“Seriously?” the 9-year-old complained, striking the same hands-on-her-hips pose she had adopted during her earlier unsuccessful campaign to get an iPod Touch without having to wait until age 12 like her older sisters.
“Yup,” the 12-year-old replied. “It’s got a keyboard.”
The 9-year-old turned to us to complain: “If a typewriter counts as my technology, that just proves how sad things are.”
There was a lot of grousing throughout that first weekend and into the start of the week. When Monday night came around, my middle daughter reminded us that American Ninja Warrior, which we all had gotten hooked on earlier in the summer, would be airing the finals. As tempted as I was to see how things turned out, I didn’t bite.
Although my wife and I had explained that at some points we would have to use our phones and computers for work, every time we did, one of the girls called us on it. As a parent trying to get your kids’ tech use in check, the quickest way to lose moral authority is to be spotted sneaking a peak at your iPhone.
Here’s what really surprised us, though. As the week wore on, and the daily train of duties and distractions chugged along, all that grousing about being deprived of screen time started to dry up. And, as it turned out, dealing with more of those blurred-lines questions wasn’t as hard as it seemed at first. “Can I use my phone to text my friend a question about the homework?” Yes. (My first response — call her on her home phone — was a non-starter. Most teens have no idea what their friends’ home phone numbers or e-mail addresses are.) “Can I use my phone as an alarm clock to wake me up in the morning?” No. (Letting that phone into the bedroom is a slippery slope worth avoiding at all costs.)
With their usual go-to moves closed off, the girls did a few activities during tech-free week that they hadn’t done in a while. A nice bonus was that this continued even after the experiment was over.
Nonetheless, by the end of that first week, they were ready to get their keyboards back. (Honestly, so was I, and I’m in no hurry to repeat this experiment.) At dinner one night, the 9-year-old asked, “Wait, why are we doing this again?” I mentioned the camp study, explaining how kids who went just five days without their screens were far better able to look at people and detect their emotions than they had been before their tech diet.
Our little girl wasn’t impressed. Gesturing at the sister sitting next to her, she said: “I can tell by her face that she’s grumpy. Now can we watch The Middle?”
SCREEN DIETS FOR LITTLE ONES?
According to a nationwide survey from Common Sense Media, the youngest Americans actually spent 21 fewer minutes per day parked in front of screens in 2013 than they did in 2011. Here’s how kids 8 and younger spent their digital time.
1 hour and 55 minutes
The average amount of time young kids spent consuming screen media each day in 2013, which breaks down to:
57 minutes — watching TV
22 minutes — watching DVDs
15 minutes — using mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets (triple the number from 2011)
11 minutes — using computers
10 minutes — using hand-held video games or game consoles
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