Do you ever have screen related conflict with your kids? I do! And I feel kinda bad about it. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it is worth the strain on the relationship to insist on things like no screens in bedrooms, reading before screens, etc.
But guess what I just figured out? Awesome people who are parents who don’t have screen rules also feel bad about the whole screen thing.
I recently ran into a smart, hard working, loving old friend for the first time in years. Like me, he has teenagers.
“How are they doing?” I asked.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It’s these screens. They’re out of control.”
I’m always curious to hear what other parents are doing, so I asked “what rules do you have for screens?”
“Rules?” he said, “There are no rules. If I asked them to get off their phones, they wouldn’t do it.”
Later that exact same day at a middle school sporting event, I spoke with another parent. I shared with her that I feel like my daughter is sometimes rude and angry when I ask her to turn in her phone. “Got any tips?” I asked.
The other parent, who is kind, hardworking and loving, said, “I don’t even ask my kids to give me their phones anymore–because they won’t. I hate it!”
Suddenly my own parenting struggles felt smaller as I realized in shock that well meaning parents have essentially given up on the whole “screen thing.”
But they didn’t feel ZEN about it.
They felt HELPLESS.
They know they pay the cell phone bill, they know they are “supposed” to be in charge. But they had been overwhelmed by technology, peer pressure, and even wanting to be kind to their kids. And…
They had given up the ship.
Stand By To Repel Boarders
Fellow parents, it’s no fun to be attacked by pirates. It might be easier to jump overboard, or to let the pirates take over and babysit the kids while we hide in the brig scrolling through our news feed. But here’s the thing…this family thing is really important to me. My wife and I love our kids, and we are not going to give up the ship. Instead, I’m going to climb up this big old mast and take a look around, and then I’m going to repel boarders! And hopefully I’ll teach my kids to be really good at steering their own ships.
In this blog I’m going to show that tech, even though it is awesome, has been created explicitly to hijack our brains. And I’m going to encourage you, and me, to not accept that the negative aspects of tech are just a given that we have to expect.
Stand by to repel boarders!
Tech And The Internet Are Awesome! But…
Listen, I’m not a Luddite. I love living in a golden age of information and learning. I love my audiobooks, learning to repair things on YouTube, talking face to face with people who live thousands of miles away–and of course my phone based guitar tuner is SUPER handy!
In fact, if you’re reading this, it is because I digitally shared it with my editor, Erin, who edited it, posted it to our website, and set it up as an email to 25,000 people, without ever being in the same room with me.
Go amazing future world, go!
My kids benefit from technology, too. They hang out with friends from camp or school digitally, and I’ve been pleased to see that they’ve each followed Internet rabbit holes to further their interests, from watching videos on history or trying on new makeup looks.
It turns out that we can even bond as a family with screens. For example, my daughter and I trade picking movies to watch together! (Essentially we alternate between foreign martial arts-ish movies like Seven Samurai and Kung Fu Hustle and movies about young women learning lessons, being powerful, and looking cute like Mean Girls and Legally Blonde.)
Yes, screens and tech are awesome!
But there are multiple dark sides to this amazing tech, like insane violations of privacy and mass surveillance, mounting rates of childhood and teen anxiety and depression linked to overuse of screens, unfiltered content out of context (I’m looking at you, internet porn), and a loss of healthy nourishing activities like imaginative free play and reading.
Reality Check: The Smartest Minds Of Our Generation Are Working To Enslave The Little Monkey Brains Of Our Kids. And Our Little Monkey Brains, Too.
The phone is built by experts to be as addictive as possible, and our primate brains are having a hard time keeping up with the incredible technology. Countless innovations like the “like” button, the “infinite scroll”, the “swipe to refresh” feature and more give us little dopamine hits with variable rewards, which trigger us (and our kids) to go back swipe after swipe and tap after tap. Each interaction with our screens can be a trigger for another interaction with our phone.
We’re living in a huge, unprecedented experiment where we and our kids are the lab rats. The best minds of the generation are using every technical and psychological technique they can to capture our attention–and that of our kids. Without awareness of what is actually going on, our kids are almost defenseless. And we’re caught in the crossfire–when we aren’t getting sucked in ourselves.
These brilliant experts in addictive technology know it is all just harmless fun, right?
Aza Raskin (engineer who designed “infinite scrolling”)
Loren Brichter (designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism)
Justin Rosenstein (engineer who designed the “like” button for Facebook and co-created Gchat for Google.)
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (aka the best selling book for app designers of all time.)
And are these experts in captivating the eyes, fingertips and minds of us and our kids spending all their time on Instagram and Tiktok?
No, they are not.
And are they letting their own kids suck full time from the nipple of the internet?
Uh, no again.
According to The Independent, Rosenstein set up parental controls on his own phone to give himself a strict Facebook time limit and to prevent himself from downloading new apps. The Guardian reports that Eyal installed an outlet timer that cuts off access to the internet at a set time each day for him and his family. (Hilariously, he said, “The idea is to remember that we are not powerless. We are in control.” Uh, yeah–notice that for him, being in control means actually removing the internet!)
Brichter, now a parent, says he’s going to be “crazy strict in terms of limiting screen time, which maybe is ironic given what I’ve done for a living.” Razkin helped start the Center For Human Technology, which is dedicated to solving the problem of “the extractive attention economy is tearing apart our shared social fabric.”
Business Insider even reports that Bill and Melinda Gates limited their kids screen time and didn’t allow them to have phones until the age of 14. In fact, Melinda Gates later said she wished they had waited longer! And before his death, Steve Jobs reported that he also limited his kids screen time, and didn’t even allow them to use iPads.
SO! I repeat–I love the internet!
But if the designers of our digital world think they need to protect themselves and their kids from it, do you think maybe we should, too?
THREE STEPS TO ESTABLISHING DIGITAL BOUNDARIES FOR YOU (AND YOUR KIDS)
Step One: Talk To Other People And Other Parents
Every chance you get, ask your friends, fellow parents, your kid’s teacher, etc, “Hey, how are you handling technology? How are your kids doing with it? How do you feel about it?”
I’ve had scores of these conversations now, and when you have these conversations you’ll quickly discover:
You’re not alone and you’re not crazy!
This tech stuff is a big deal. And “big tech” may be slipping it past us like it is a fait accompli, but letting someone else control our minds and attention–and in fact even read our minds with surveillance via our location, search history or even spoken words, is actually a really big deal. Especially when some of those minds getting hijacked belong to small children, kids, and teenagers who we love!
Millions of us are trying to figure out what is simply new (“wow this stuff called “fire” is really neat–but I’ve always eaten my food raw, and it makes me nervous!”) versus what is a big problem (“here’s a friendly robot that will eat your head!”). When you start that conversation with another parent, you are doing a big service to them, yourself, and humanity.
Step Two: Don’t Let Somebody Else Control Your Mind
As parents we are super concerned about our kids. But…let’s start with us!
This is important for two reasons.
- Firstly, our little monkey brains might not be as small as that of our child–but they are still monkey brains! We, too, are susceptible to the brilliant machinations of hungry tech.
- Secondly, when we lay down the law for our kids, it is extremely helpful to get buy-in if we are also following that same law!
Here’s an example–some years ago, back when I used my phone as an alarm, I found myself checking it in the morning instead of leaping out of bed to seize that day. So I put it on the kitchen counter at night, and loved my additional rest and energy.
Almost a year later, when I said to my three kids “hey, there’s an exciting new rule! All devices must be out of bedrooms and on the kitchen counter at night–or you lose your phone the next day!” the amount of grumbling was quite muted.
I also realized that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. My reading time had been replaced by incessantly checking online news, resulting in a constantly triggered state for me, and way fewer novels.
So I set up screen time restrictions on my phone and asked my wife to set the password.
My personal phone restrictions include “downtime” from 10pm to 7am, content filters, 15 minutes per day maximum on the NY Times, no Youtube, no Facebook, and a 2 hour overall time limit with a few important exceptions (Timer, Audible, Spotify.)
My life hasn’t been wrecked. In fact, I like it!
And although I can be lazy and get nothing done without the aid of technology, I basically feel like I’m walking around with a super power, that has helped me write books, expand my business, be in great shape, and have the clarity and resolve to ask my kids to limit their screen time! (In fact, my 13 year old is the person who is in charge of the parental controls on my phone.)
So…we’re all different, and the answer is different for all of us. But what can you do to take back your own attention? Start with that!
And while you’re at it, make it a little tougher for big brother to watch you! I followed this helpful step by step guide from Thorin Klowsky at the New York Times.
But I’m not done. I’m so mad that people are trying to steal and sell my attention that I want to keep editing my constraints!
Now that your own ship is in order, move on to the kids!
Step Three: Don’t Let Somebody Else Control Your Kid’s Mind
My daughter thought she could study for her test and watch Sabrina The Teenage Witch at the same time.
“Dad,” she yelled, “you don’t have the right to walk into my room and check on me. Let me do this my way!”
OK, she has a little bit of a point–eventually she has to be in complete control of herself, so she needs to practice.
But she’s also completely wrong. As a parent I have the right and responsibility to oversee her and teach her.
Would this be good parenting?
“Honey, I love you and I want to teach you to eat healthy. So I’m going to leave you alone in this room filled with infinite shelves of Hot Cheetos and Oreo Cookies and Soda. Oh, and there is some spinach in the freezer. Now, ‘scuze me, I’m gonna grab some of those candy bars for myself! Good luck eating healthy!”
No! And neither would this:
“Honey, I love you and I want to teach you to be self disciplined. So I’m going to leave you alone in this room filled with infinite cat videos, addictive shows, and outrageous interesting behavior. Now, ‘scuze me, I’m going to go read the NY Times comments section in the other room. Good luck finishing your homework!”
If I could only go back in time, I’d follow Melinda Gates’ advice and not give my kids a phone (I mean, allow them to buy their own) until they were 16! But unfortunately my kids were lab rats and so was I, and I didn’t realize we were in the middle of an experiment until it was well underway!
Right now, our family’s modest screen rules include:
- If kids want phones, they have to buy them themselves. And if they break, they have to buy the replacements themselves.
- No screens in bedrooms at night.
- Phone screen limits for my 13 year old (25 minutes on school nights, 2 hours on weekends).
- The internet router turns off at 11pm at night.
- No screens at the dinner table.
And these rules are…incredibly modest. They are about to get more intense. And that is why I wrote this whole article! To help myself get clear on how important this is, and to realize what one of the most important things is that I need to teach my kids.
Nir Eyal, the priest of creating addictive products I quoted earlier in this article, recently wrote a followup book called Indistractable. In it he says:
We’re not parenting in the stone age! That’s good, because we don’t need to teach our children to survive a fight with wolves. But we do need to teach our kids to control their own attention by creating their own flaming torches and comfy tree nests to guard against today’s nasty predators.
My next step is talking to my kids about where someone else is taking their time and attention away from what they want, and then helping them set up the guardrails that help them do what they want to. I expect it to be messy! Wish me luck–and I wish you luck, too!
Wolves? Torches? Oh, yeah–I started this blog by talking about ships! Stand by to repel boarders! And don’t give up the ship!
On to parenting, on to greatness!
Founder, NYC Guitar School
Here’s a helpful step by step guide on digital privacy from Thorin Klowsky at the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/privacy-project/how-to-protect-your-digital-privacy
Here’s a (long) video for families about the attention economy from the Center for Humane Technology: https://vimeo.com/370135963
Here are some resources for Parents and Kids from Center For Human Technology: https://humanetech.com/parents-students/
Here’s an article from The Guardian where tech engineers share how they’re disconnecting from the addictive internet they helped create: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia
Here’s an interview with Justin Rosenstein talking about all the digital distractions in our world: https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/28/17172404/justin-rosenstein-asana-social-media-facebook-timeline-gantt
Here’s an article from Business Insider where Silicon Valley parents share how they’re limiting their children’s screen time: https://www.businessinsider.com/silicon-valley-parents-raising-their-kids-tech-free-red-flag-2018-2
Here’s an article from The Independent where Justin Rosenstein shares how he’s worked to prevent becoming addicted to technology: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/facebook-like-inventor-deletes-app-iphone-justin-rosenstein-addiction-fears-a7986566.html
Here’s an article form Forbes where former employees from tech companies share some of their concerns about big tech companies: https://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2019/01/30/a-new-voice-from-omaha-in-the-parade-of-tech-naysayers/#30bb8acf3515
Here’s an interview with Loren Brichter where he shares his experience in programming and how he’s limiting his own screen time: https://www.objc.io/issues/20-interviews/loren-brichter/
Here’s an article from The New York Times where parents who are employees/former employees of tech companies share their concerns about children and screens: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley.html
Here’s an article from The New York Times with tips for how and when to limit screen time: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/smarterliving/family-technology
Here’s an article from BBC News sharing how social media companies have deliberately made their networks addictive: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-44640959
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