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When It Comes To Screen Time, Learn To Tell Kids ‘No’


If you’re a parent, you’re probably not going to enjoy reading Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book Be The Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat: Strategies for Solving the Real Parenting Problems. But that’s precisely why you should.

A year and a half ago, one of my children entered occupational therapy and in the time between then and now, we have used four different therapists from two different institutions. In the hour they work with my child a week, we make conversation. They used to come into our home, and would always comment on how many non-electric toys they saw here. As you do when you spend an hour a week with someone, we got to talking about why that was so notable.

Occupational therapists work with children who have issues with coordination, attention, sensory processing, balance, and fine and gross motor skills. My child’s therapists all mentioned both the biggest obstacle to their work, and also the thing that was bringing them more patients: tablets.

Children using tablets like iPads and Kindle Fires had the expected problems with attention, but their extensive use of screens had more physical ramifications: They lacked strength and dexterity in every part of their body except their “swiping finger,” they had attention difficulties because they were accustomed to immediate responses from online games (which is why non-electronic and open-ended games like blocks are preferable). They even had issues related to balance because of how little they used their peripheral vision, owing to staring straight ahead at a screen for hours.

Common Sense

What my children’s therapists have told me, and much more, has been documented in Riley’s new book on the dangers of technology, with strategies for parents who realize they need to wean their children. Riley warns “screen time is getting away from us.” She’s right. She explains:

A 2015 survey commissioned by Common Sense Media found that tweens (ages eight to twelve) are spending five hours and twelve minutes per day consuming digital media (not including listening to music or using screens at school or for homework). Teens (ages thirteen to eighteen), meanwhile, are spending about eight hours and twenty minutes on digital media each day.

What about that use in schools, anyhow? Riley writes a fascinating chapter on how little data there is on the effectiveness of including technology in classrooms, and how it may actually do more harm than good. It’s common sense stuff: “On one level, parents know this. We know what happens when we give our kids screens. We know that the second they turn on the iPad or take out the phone, they will have a hard time listening to anything we say. The effects in a classroom are not much different.”

When the technology is made available at home for low-income students, Riley explains how studies find “universal home access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps… Too much access to technology is actually exacerbating the inequality that already exists.”

Riley presents any number of dangers for parents considering purchasing a cell phone for their children. From the prevalence of bullying, to access to pornography anywhere at any time, to the ability for kids to send messages which are then externally accessible—the reasons to hold off are endless. Riley challenges parents: Do kids really need a cell phone? Do any of us?

Real Talk

The day after Christmas, my phone broke; and because of the holidays, it took a full week to get a new one. I did crazy things like drive 70 miles away, through New York City, using directions I had looked up before leaving and wrote down in my bullet journal. I arranged to meet people before I left home, picking a time and place to meet. When I needed to contact someone when I was in a store, I asked the cashier if I could borrow his phone. Just like I did as a teen, I survived walking around without a cell phone. I found the whole week strangely mind-clearing.

Throughout the book, Riley offers “Tips for Cutting Back.” On cell phones and kids (and teens) she suggests: “Buy your child a watch and teach him or her how to use it. You may think you need your kid to have a phone to arrange pickups and drop-offs, but you don’t. Agree to meet at a time. You are not Uber. If something goes wrong, teach your child how to ask the adult present to contact you.”

Why aren’t parents hearing more about the real dangers technology poses to our children? Riley explains, “The short answer seems to be they [doctors and researchers, the psychologists and parenting experts] don’t want parents to feel guilty.” Riley’s book largely avoids parent shaming, but she does offer some real talk for parents about technology use—from babies to teens. She provides not just the jarring facts, but also suggestions on how to curb use and alleviate parent guilt about depriving our kids of technology, something we have been fooled into believing we need far more than we do.