Being a parent has never been easy. You’re ultimately responsible for another life, or even multiple lives. Even the basics can be daunting—how do I feed and clothe these creatures, and keep them from being eaten? And then if you keep them alive long enough, you end up facing deeper questions: How do I help guide these growing people, familiar to me but also very strange, into becoming the best versions of themselves?
It’d be great if technology made that challenge easier. But at best it tends to make things more complicated. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs famously limited how much technology their children used (with Gates reportedly not letting his children have cell phones until they were 14), worried about the addictive allure of those shining handheld screens. These days we all contend with that temptation, swiping and liking our way through the mediated world. It’s such a pervasive mode of living that both Apple and Google have recently introduced tools for managing screen time and eliminating distractions.
Adults can, in theory, self-regulate when it comes to screen time, or at least recognize and take responsibility for choices they’re making. Parents, though, have to consider those choices not just for themselves, but for their children. And they have many of the same questions. What does it do to brains and bodies to stare at a screen all day? What portals are those screens, and where do they lead? How much is too much?
Today’s technologists are asking those questions, as people who build digital tools and as parents. To see how they’re thinking through those issues, I asked them what rules (if any) they set for their kids, how they decided on them, and how having children makes them reflect on their own use of technology. Here's what they told us.
Make screen time more active
Lloyd Armbrust is the CEO of Ownlocal, an Austin-based startup that helps local media bring their advertising into the digital age. His children are 12, nine, six, and four. He describes them as covering the spectrum of Screen Age. The oldest pretty much grew up with portable screens and has a pretty good grasp of their place in the world. The youngest, at four, gets confused when the television screen doesn’t respond like a touchscreen. And the six-year-old gets that some screens are interactive and others are not.
“I want screen time to be intentional,” he says. “These other kids will zone out for hours, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do.” Armbrust limits that aimless vegging for his kids, telling them, “It’s very easy to be bored. But if you’re bored, that’s on you.” It’s up to them to come up with ways to entertain themselves, and not simply find a device to devour their time.
So even when he needs the kids out of his hair for a bit, he’ll send them to play Minecraft. They know that’s a treat, and they understand it’s intentional time. His oldest plays the Sims, which Armbrust says is “her crack,” and he limits how much she plays it. But he also recalls his pre-Internet days tinkering with a Dell desktop and modem, learning how they worked by digging into them. He wants that for her, too—room to be obsessed by something that she’s driven to learn deeply about it.
Set designated no-screen days
Amy Vernon, vice president of community at blockchain startup Rivetz, has two boys, 14 and 12, and they were obsessed with their screens. “I think one morning,” she says, “it was tough to get them out of the house on time because they were so entranced by their iPads. It was ridiculous. So we mandated that Monday through Thursday were no-screen days.” There’s an exception for homework, and her older son has a phone he’s allowed to use on the bus, she says, “mainly because we knew he'd do it anyway and that fight wasn't worth it.”
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Leave room for flexibility
There are exceptions: Family time sitting on the sofa playing HQ trivia on their respective devices, or an hour of device time after school during a testing week or if there’s no homework, and during the summer those rules are off. When the no-screens rules were instituted three or four years ago, there was some griping, but now her boys have Video Game Friday: If they have no homework at the end of the school week, they get at least 45 minutes to play XBox, and the family might watch some TV or a movie.
Create natural boundaries
Johanna Wright, vice president of product management at YouTube, had a similar moment of frustration with her two children, 11 and nine. Letting them regulate their own screen time wasn’t working; they just kept asking to watch TV and Youtube Kids. “It felt like they were nagging us throughout the day and I always had to say no,” she says, “so in a stroke of genius I made the rule: after 5 pm. This gives them a lot of freedom, but also sets boundaries.” That draws a clear line between responsible, no-screen time and after-five veg-out time. “Sometimes my kids even veg out without technology.”
Play the role of gatekeeper
Loren Cheng, director of product management at Facebook for Messenger Kids, says his family developed rules for his kids fairly organically. His children, a four-year-old daughter, a seven-year-old son, and a ten-year-old daughter, have to ask permission. “So while we don't have a strict number of hours each day that they can use a screen to play games or watch videos,” he says, “we do have a dynamic where mom and dad are the gatekeepers.”
The oldest is already using plenty of technology at school, while her younger siblings aren’t yet doing homework, and mostly just play games or watch videos. Cheng tries to balance screen time with offline activities. “That said, we are not immune from what every parent is going through,” he says. “Sometimes we need to let the kids watch a movie while we get things done around the house.”
Lead by example
Almost all the interviewees expressed one latent lament about too much screen time: It often prevents us all, children and adults, from engaging directly with the world and people right in front of us. Vernon says that when she’s with her kids in the summer, she takes them swimming and hiking—the phone stays behind, so she can be mentally present. Wright similarly carries two phones, one for work and one for her personal life. “On weekends and evenings I plug my work phone in away from me,” she says. “That helps me to disconnect from work and focus on my family. I don’t want my kids to feel tethered to technology and unable to be present with the people they are with.”
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