Almost as soon as they can focus past the end of their noses, babies today are waving at Grandpa on video chat and swiping the screens on all kinds of devices.
It's just plain unsettling to watch a baby in a stroller with an iPad. Especially when his mother is looking at her phone at the same time.
There's a lot of panic and anxiety and guilt and shame out there about kids and screens. I feel it — all of it — as a mother. And as a reporter I've been interested in the intersection of children and technology for many years.
For my new book, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media And Real Life, I set out to answer the question: What's the best approach to take to tech?
I surveyed over 500 families. I interviewed dozens of experts who study kids and media to find out best practices, based on the latest research.
And I boiled everything down to a slogan, based on Michael Pollan's famous Food Rules (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.)
My version? Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.
Parents should help kids balance screen time — yes. But we also play a role in sharing the joy of screens with our kids. We can model the use of technology for creation, discovery and connection. We can help kids interpret the media that they do use, when we experience it with them.
And this help can make all the difference. That's true when it comes to the good stuff: learning to count with the Count, or to say sorry from Daniel Tiger, or the basics of coding. And it's true when it comes to shielding kids from the bad stuff that's been correlated with screen media overuse, like sleep disruption or emotional problems.
"I think parents vastly underestimate their influence," says Erica Austin, director of the Murrow Center for Media & Health Promotion at Washington State University, who's been researching these issues for almost 30 years.
Eric Rasmussen at Texas Tech agrees. "Parents are the biggest influence on kids in how they respond to media. Especially in the first 12 years. People are starting to realize that."
Rasmussen's research takes on the impact of Disney, Daniel Tiger and more. He says setting strict rules is less important than talking and listening.
"I tell people, the best thing you can do generally is talk to your kids about media," he explains. "Kids need to know what you think about the media they're consuming."
This quiz is based on the work of Austin, Rasmussen and other researchers interviewed in The Art of Screen Time. It can help assess your parenting style with regards to technology. Take a few minutes — hopefully while your kids are otherwise occupied — to check it out!
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Are smartphones, tablets and other devices bad for our kids' development, or do they help them grow? That is the question for this week's All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
MCEVERS: It's a question I ask in my own family, a question that Apple investors have raised with the company in a public letter, and a question that NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz, who covers education and technology, has been exploring. It is the topic of her new book, "The Art Of Screen Time." And she's with us now. Hey, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So it seems like everyone who has kids has an opinion on this - no screen time, all the screen time, limited screen time. You actually are very familiar with the research on it. How much data is there out there?
KAMENETZ: Not as much as we'd like. And, you know, it's hard to believe, but we're really only about 10 years into the smartphone era. And so there's been a big lag in the research. And there's also ethical issues. I mean, you can't necessarily split up babies into two groups and force one of them to watch television 24/7. So there's a lot that we don't know. But it's also the case that the best research that's out there isn't necessarily getting into the public's view partly because we're kind of all hypnotized by the worst-case scenarios. And I would probably...
KAMENETZ: ...Blame technology for that as well.
MCEVERS: You know, I mentioned Apple. When those institutional investors wrote their letter to Apple they referred to possible unintentional negative consequences for kids. They pointed to studies showing that heavy users were less social, more distracted, more sleep deprived, more at risk of suicide even. Is this something that you found, too?
KAMENETZ: You have to be very careful when you segment the evidence. So out of everything that's out there I found the sleep research to be the most convincing because researchers are pretty sure of the mechanism involved. They understand that when kids use devices that are close to their eyes and the light is shining in their faces it does interfere with the quality of sleep as well as length of sleep. And, you know, we have these devices in our bedrooms. A lot of kids have them in their own bedrooms. And this is a big risk factor. When it gets out to things like emotional disorders or even ADHD we see small effects across the population, but it's way too soon to say that there is causal effects rather than correlations when it comes to things like depression and anxiety across populations.
MCEVERS: When people ask you just, like, are screens better for my kid, like, what do you say?
KAMENETZ: You can observe your kid and see, do they have a problematic relationship to tech? Is media the only thing that they love? Do they get very upset when it's turned off or do they have trouble balancing it with other activities? If you see these effects in your own kids, there's red flags that you should do something about it. If your kids are getting along fine - I mean, most people use some media. And most of us enjoy it.
MCEVERS: It's probably important, too, to not just, you know, lump, like, screen time all into one thing, right? That could mean a certain kind of movie, a certain kind of video game. We should be talking about different types of technology, too, right?
KAMENETZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, researchers are divided on the question of whether, like, passive screen time like video watching is wholesale better or worse than more interactive things like gaming. But as long as they can, you know, go ahead and turn it off and be OK afterwards it's probably not too much of a problem.
MCEVERS: And you also even argue that some screen time can be good for them, good for creativity, good for emotional development. Talk about that.
KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean, we all use technology because it provides a lot of benefits to us. And what I kind of argue for and what the experts are saying is that we need to be using it with our kids. And when we do that there's a lot of magic that can happen. They can definitely use media even at a very young age to learn how to read, to learn how to count, to learn prosocial behaviors like saying sorry and thank you. And these are all things that kids learn from the characters and the stories that they love. And as they get older we can start helping them scaffold the use of tech for research, for creative expression, for coding and robotics. These are all things that we want to help our kids explore and get to know, you know, in the realm of having balance at the same time.
MCEVERS: You know, you're talking about what kids encounter when they're younger and what they encounter when they're older. I'm sure that when we talk about this we need to remember that not all kids are the same and not all age groups are the same, right? It's different for a 3-year-old, for a 6-year-old, for a 12-year-old.
KAMENETZ: Oh, just like every parenting issue is. I mean, you know, when it comes to young children we have a lot more control over the environment that they're in. And sometimes it makes sense to set really clear, hard and fast rules or have a sticker chart or passes. When kids get older, though, setting those hard and fast rules can really backfire. And you need to get on a path of negotiating with your kid to help them understand, you know, what are our rules as a family?
And I think, you know, a huge pitfall that comes up all the time is that parents have their own compulsive relationships with their devices, you know, especially working parents. We're all trying to be in two places at once. And the kids see that. And they are very alert to it. I mean, my daughter is 6 years old, and she's already started to call out me or her dad when there is a device at the dinner table. So that's something that we've said is a family rule we want to do better on. And our kids are on the same page with us on that.
MCEVERS: What is your - you know, based on your reporting and your understanding of the research, what is your biggest piece of advice for parents?
KAMENETZ: So I kind of crib from the great food writer Michael Pollan who said, you know, eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And I boiled down my research in this book into the slogan, enjoy screens, not too much, and mostly together.
MCEVERS: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thank you so much, Kelly.
MCEVERS: The new book is called "The Art Of Screen Time." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.