On The Digital Life podcast this week, we discuss parenting in the digital age. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study on Children and Adolescents and Digital Media. The study identified both benefits from the use of digital and social media — like early learning and exposure to new ideas and knowledge — as well as risks — including negative effects on sleep and a higher incidence of obesity and depression.
In this episode we explore setting boundaries for our children in the seemingly boundary-less environment of the digital life.
Jon: Welcome to episode 183 of the Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: So for the podcast this week we’ll be discussing the very difficult job of parenting in the digital age. So we have a digital life and all of our kids are going to have digital lives too, so how do we manage that while we’re trying to figure out how to be parents in the real world at this intersection of technology and family.
So to get us started on that, last month the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study on children and adolescents and digital media. They gave some evidence based benefits for digital media, so let’s talk about the good stuff first. Digital and social media can help with early learning, exposure to new ideas and knowledge, increased opportunities for social contact and support, and new opportunities to access health promotion messages and information, so those are the positives. Risks they included were negative health affects on sleep, attention and learning, higher incidence of obesity and depression, exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate or unsafe content and contacts, and compromised privacy and confidentiality. So those are all the things that would expect would be a problem, we’ve delved into a number of those, in fact last week we were ruminating about all the fake news-
Jon: And you really shouldn’t believe most of what you read online, right?
So one of the recommendations coming out of this American Academy of Pediatrics study was that you have some kind of plan that you articulate as part of your family contract, like how can you be explicit about what the rules are and how are you planning to have your kids grow into the digital life. So having some youngsters of my own, I know the concerns that I have about rolling out the digital life too quickly or just the wrong parts of it at the wrong times.
Dirk: What are the right parts, Jon?
Jon: That’s a good question. Part of this is a discussion really about media exposure as well, because we’re talking about it as if it’s multiple things and certainly the social media and content creation and contact with other people, you know, meeting people online is certainly a … something new. But there are aspects to digital consumption that are much the same as when we were kids. For instance … Sesame Street just now happens to be on HBO instead of going first to public television and of course you can get HBO NOW on your phone or on your laptop or what have you. But at the same time HBO NOW has a lot of stuff that kids should definitely not be looking at, right?
Jon: So there’s this combination of media access and then a variety of content that is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. So in addition to what used to be television viewing and is now streaming viewing, which I just described, then there are all kinds of “educational games”, and I’m using air quotes there because some of the stuff is not so educational and then there’s of course all the fun gaming. There’s a huge Pokemon GO craze at my house where finding new Pokemon was what the kids wanted to do and so my wife would take them all over the place to go to different PokeStops, which was actually pretty good because they were getting out and walking around and finding these funny creatures. But I think what gets to the heart of it is that there’s such a huge variety of different kinds of content and then also a variety of people that you can meet online. So having different gates and different ways of controlling that as parents I think is important.
I’ll start off with some of the things that I’ve found helpful and I might’ve shared this with you before.
Jon: So I discovered early on that my son was very interested in my wife’s phone and we’d pick out a game for him and then he’d inevitably end up on YouTube watching something that was of questionable educational value for sure.
Dirk: Oh dear.
Jon: Just because he could poke at things with his little fingers. Actually Amazon has this kids … I’m going to forget the name of the app, I think it’s called FreeTime, and then you can control both the number of hours they watch as well as what days of the week they watch it on. So you can have different rules depending on whether it’s a weekend or a weekday.
Jon: And then another thing is Amazon provides that filter that says “hey, these are games, these are eBooks, these are television or whatever video programming” and you can have different rules for each of those things as well. So you can create a nice matrix of possibilities for the kids that you have rules for. Now that works fine so long as my son can’t figure out my pass code or he’s not to the age yet where he’s going to care about texting with his compatriots, but that’s coming. Dirk, I know you’re sort of … have to struggle with all the same issues that I do, what’s your initial take on rules for letting kids into the digital age?
Dirk: It’s a tough one. My daughter is six and number one on her gift list for about a year now has been her own phone, and that’s been consistent. Usually when something’s number one on her gift list, it’s that way one day and then a month later it’s something totally different. That phone is top of mine and she definitely wants it-
Dirk: And what she’s responding to is the photographs and the texting. So she sees us able to text with each other, she’s participating in texts when I text my wife and then my daughter is putting little funny faces in there and stuff. So it’s that sort of communication with people she cares about, and I even say to her “who would you even text with Elena?” And she said “well, you and mommy” and I say “well, we’re always in the next room. You don’t need to text with us.” But she’s attracted to that form of self-expression and remote communication most particularly and then the ability to take pictures, to capture her life, capture things that she’s interested in and look at them. Because her favorite thing to do at restaurants is to say “hey daddy, let me look through the pictures” and she likes to take the phone and … Much more than watching a video or something else, she likes to see pictures of the family and ostensibly herself, right?
I’ve struggled with it because … as you know, I have a low tolerance for dealing with a lot of technical fiddliness and I’m sure that if I would be able to stomach technical fiddliness, I could get her a phone, I could wall it off so it was just texting to a limited number of people and sort of a safe round trip that would seem age appropriate and parentally approved and that would be okay. But there isn’t that is just simple and easy, it’s going to be a huge pain pill. I’m like oh god, unless I’m super diligent and paying attention to the details and right on top of this thing, it’s a veritable Pandora’s box of things that I’d rather her not have access to in one way or another. It’s tough, we do try and limit screen time. For me it’s all just guess work, right? I know if you put them on the screen all day that isn’t good, right? But what is it really?
You forwarded the article from the New York Times and the recommendations they had in there are totally inconsistent with what any parent I’ve ever met has ever told me about what they do on screen time. Somewhere in there was like half hour a day or something like that, that’s berserk. We are an hour day, typically two hours a day on the weekends or some special times, and we’re less than anyone that I’ve ever talked to who’s a parent before. I’m sure there’s some parents that are less, but my peer group of well educated, tech savvy, progressive parents … there’s a lot of hours of screen time going on, and so we’ve got our number and it’s kind of like lick my finger and put it in the air and just hope … I’m counting on the wind blowing in the right direction, because whenever I see the official what the screen time should be, it’s rubbish, it’s totally disconnected from the real world and how people live in the world and how people parent.
All of these things, this ecosystem of things that I’m aware of, they’re things that I try and manage but whenever I see the official guidelines, it’s kind of like the food pyramid. It’s like yeah, have a thumbnail full of meat and a basket full of vegetables every day, well there are some people who live that way, but most people don’t, and the guidelines around this stuff really rang that way to me as well. They’re impractical and in being impractical, they’re unhelpful because they’re out of step and out of touch with how people are living their lives.
Jon: Yeah I think that’s an interesting word or reference you made to it being a Pandora’s box, right. That’s an interesting view point that there can be a lot of things that of course we don’t want our kids getting into and the Greek mythological reference there, I think puts the right amount of trepidation at least for me, because there’s this … evolution of our children’s access to digital things which starts right now. I mean for us they’re kind of young, but then we’re going to get into middle school and high school, and then there’s going to be the entire aspect of social communication that’s available which will be another aspect to this Pandora’s box, which I am really not looking forward to at all. I maybe over … overly worried about it but yeah, I can see that being particularly fraught …
Dirk: I think we probably are overly worried about these things, but we don’t know what we don’t know, and we cherish our children and we want to protect them. So we’re probably in this certain conservative way, horribly erring but we’re doing it with the best of intentions and I don’t think the erring that we’re doing is particularly harmful. It’s not going to harm the children, that we’re giving them less technology access or less screen time than probably would be okay.
Jon: Yeah, I remember as a kid, my very good friends had cable television. So you can figure out where we hung out, most of the time it was in their TV room because we just had access to cable and at my house we only had three channels or whatever it was.
Jon: You know in the 70s and yeah, I just remember thinking that cable was like this … only good and all the stuff that I wanted to see was on cable.
Jon: Whether it was like MTV in the early 80s or just like an endless deluge of cartoons. So I actually worry a little bit less around screen time because I know my parents were very diligent about just an hour of television when you’re at home or whatever.
Jon: And I just circumvented that by hanging out at my buddy’s house.
Dirk: Well that’s how it works, right? When things are prohibited people find a way to get at that prohibited thing, it’s all the more attractive. For me it was less cable television, we had cable television, I didn’t get to watch a lot of it, but it was more … My parents house was like a museum and if I would ever raise my voice or if anything would go out of place I would be in deep trouble, and they also had no sweet snacks and so I would spend all afternoon at my friend’s house whose parents were never there, the cupboards were full of Little Debbies and we could do whatever the hell we wanted. I went out and sought out that which was prohibited to me in my environment and that has nothing to do with screen time, but it has to do with psychology and children.
Jon: Yeah that’s another good reference there. So the New York Times article that you referenced was a … unscientific survey of a columnists … group of, we’ll call it friends and colleagues, but I found some of the information on setting boundaries interesting or at least gave me some food for thought.
Dirk: Did you also feel like it was sort of silly and unreasonable or did it seem more useful to you?
Jon: I always look at … the advice that’s given in unscientific surveys as being more like a Dear Abby kind of advice, which is like that’s what Dear Abby is saying and you can either take it or leave it. So I’m never all that … My filter for those is not all that strong really. But here are some of the ideas that I thought could be helpful. So one of the ideas was starting off with purposely limited devices. Surprisingly the flip phone still has a place in our technology ecosystem if you want to give somebody a phone and they can just make phone calls on it.
Dirk: What’s a phone?
Jon: Yeah right. What is a phone? So I thought that was interesting and certainly I know folks who just need to make phone calls, so they have flip phones. Also, writing down what the expected behavior should be, so whatever your rules of the road are, putting those down in writing somewhere so you have a referenceable set of rules. We already talked about time limits different during the week and weekend, but at least having a structure to those, I’m guilty of not having really any sort of time limits for the kids on screen time. I find they get bored with whatever they’re watching and want to go play with their trucks anyway, so …
Jon: I haven’t really enforced time limits but it’s certainly there. This one I thought was interesting, charging all your phones or devices in one place at night. Right, so everybody in the family sort of turns in their devices at a certain time or maybe the kids just do it and they all sort of charge together, so making it a family based activity, that you’re unplugging before bedtime.
Dirk: I mean that deals with the parenting and children aspects, but it’s also a more holistic statement about the use of screens for everyone.
Jon: Yeah, I thought that was pretty neat. I can tell you since … it would largely be symbolic for me, since we all know that there’s laptops and tablets and everything else. We’re certainly not going to pile up every device that we own and charge it.
Dirk: I mean one of the many pieces of silly advice in that article was some guy just disconnects the internet every night. Just disconnects it, I don’t know what world that individual is living in, but it might be a Shaker community or something because I don’t see how that’s even feasible in the work world that I’m familiar with.
Jon: Yeah, it wouldn’t work for me, certainly. I imagine if you’re in another field and you’re not interested in emailing later into the evening and or you don’t-
Dirk: So if you’re in like car washing or machine part assembly, maybe those …
Jon: If you’re in something where at five o’ clock or at a set time at night, you’re off.
Jon: Then perhaps, although, I mean, certainly we’re emailing like with the kid’s school and stuff like that. I mean it’s just not restricted to …
Jon: My own sort of work. Additionally, we stream so much on Netflix, if you turned off the internet I suppose I’d be frustrated by that and immediately go and turn it back on.
Dirk: You’d have to read a book, Jon, a book.
Jon: I know, I love reading but at night I’m so … Well, I fall asleep in front of Netflix too, so whenever I open a book at night I’m like, fall asleep because my eyes are so tired. That’s a separate problem. So it seems like getting our kids into the digital life is going to be a constant evolution and something that we require a lot of flexibility around, and I’m okay with that, I’m all right with that, but it definitely does keep you on your toes and I am by no means looking forward to adolescence with these devices, I have a lot of fear and trepidation about that but I’m sure we’ll talk about that on the show sometime in the future when we start having those personal experiences.
Dirk: As the gray hairs pop out more and more, right Jon?
Jon: That’s right.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. So, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett that’s j-o-n f-o-l-l-e-t-t. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s g-o-i-n-v-o dot com. Dirk?
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 183 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.