Electronic Babysitter?

No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.

A picture of  an infant seat, called the Apptivity, with a built in Ipad holder. Fisher Price withdrew the product in 2013 after parents were incensed.
Fisher Price had to recall the ultimate Electronic Babysitter, called the Apptivity Seat, in 2013.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Perhaps this is a generational issue. We live in a multigen household and my seven-year old spends hours each day online. My Mom thinks this is OK because when I was her age, I watched TV all the time. That helped me learn English as a second language. Mom says kids should be kids so my daughter should have her online time. But I think she is saying this because it has become an electronic babysitter for her. Is screen time equal? Does it matter if it is spent in front of a TV or using a laptop or phone? Priya, Berkeley

Dear Priya:  Indeed, this is a generational issue and also a lifestyle one. It’s hard to imagine what parents did before TV to find a moment of respite. Hail to the electronic babysitter! But screen time is not equal. It does matter whether the electronic babysitter is a TV or a different device.  There are a couple of things that distinguish TV time back then and going online today. Talk them over with Mom and consider that you are lucky she is not a virtual grandparent!

When you grew up, you probably watched television in a set room in a set spot. In bigger homes it was called the TV room, typically on the first floor off the kitchen where Mom could keep an eye on things.  But, the key is not the room, but the dynamic of watching. An adult could drop in on the programming and listen with their third ear. On weekends, during dinner, or evenings, the entire family used this space to come together and view communally. 

Interpretive Viewing:

Using media with grown-ups around is important. Parents help children interpret the content and learn the conventions, for example, what is an ad and how does persuasion work. Or say watching a football game together and explaining the actions of the referees.  Young kids process ‘how to watch’ from observing their parents. It’s a lot like driving. Even though you don’t get your license until you are sixteen, you absorb a lot of information about managing a vehicle before you come of age. 

Think of it this way: you would not allow a salesman to knock on your front door, boldly walk in and start proselytizing to you seven-year old. More likely, your foot would be in the door jam, blocking full entry. But that is what is happening. Your seven-year old might be upstairs with their tablet or other device, connecting more intimately to people beyond the household than to those in it. 

Spending time alone with electronic devices is a far cry from the time when family members connected in a shared space to watch TV. Your Mom may not have considered this difference. 

How and When too:

But, there’s more. The other lifestyle issue is how and when media are available. Your Mom (or her Mom) might recall a time when television broadcasts signed off at midnight, or programming was limited to certain times in the evening. Significantly, cartoons and programming for children were chunked into special time slots. That made parent’s more comfortable with using the electronic babysitter. 

Today, there’s a rating system and it takes vigilance on the part of parents to manage age-appropriate material, so many parents play movies and videos instead.  Screening for the Internet is a trickier process. Content can go almost anywhere with a few clicks and when there are no temporal boundaries, scrolling has no bounds. 

House Rules:

So, yes, it does come down to generational differences, lifestyle differences, and also, a new technology. Since you live in a multigen household, encourage your Mom to watch TV with your daughter and choose suitable programs. But, if you think there is too much screen time period, suggest that they set some common goals, get outdoors, or take up a shared hobby. 

Meanwhile, a good starting place might be to convert the TV room, if you have one, into a more communal spot where you all come together to browse on your electronic devices. Or, set up this space on the kitchen table, if that is what is available. Insist for now, that you participate together and have a glance over the collective shoulder. No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.

Restrict Time on Video Games?

A cartoon of a little Asian child in front of a very large monitor with a game remote control in hand
Limit Time on Video Games? Image: debate.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  My cousins live in Asia and the government there has decided to restrict the time that kids can play video games. Now my grandparents are suggesting that it is a good idea for me and I should limit my time on video games like them. I live in the same household as my grandparents. I only play after I do my homework and on the weekends. Usually it is when I get together with kids from my school. I am in tenth grade.  Lucas, S. San Francisco

Dear Lucas: Apropos to your question, I read that the Chinese government said “video games are like opium for the mind.” It makes me curious. Was it a political agenda, research from mental health, or sheer hubris that led to this decree? We may never know. We do know that young boys spend a lot of time on video games and Pew Research reports that  four-in-ten boys ages 13 to 17 (41%) say they spend too much time playing video games, four times the share of girls who say the same (11%).

The Chinese ban is not new: China was one of the first countries to recognize the potential for addiction to the Internet, video games, and other digital media, and was the first country to formally classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. In 2019 kids were allowed 1.5 hours of gaming on weekdays. The new decree limits gaming to 3 hours per week, from 8p.m. to 9p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The interesting issue is how the government will enforce it: one way might be at the router- might it disconnect after three hours of play? Young people will need to log in with their real names and will have limited opportunity to buy microtokens. ”Farmers,” the players who mine the games for in-game currency, will need to be over the age of 18!

To me, limiting time is a thoughtful concept, but it is parents and kids who should make this decision. You did not say how much time you currently play. Note that each hour you spend on video games is an hour that you forfeit doing something else. On a particularly day, that is not huge, but over many days- it grows to be an alarming number. During the recent Tokyo Olympics it was reported that those athletes spend about 10,000 hours at their sport before making it to an Olympic team. That’s just 3.5 hours a day over ten years!

Not So Good, Not So Bad

That said, many educators in the U.S. believe that video games have positive benefits: they help develop skills like hand-to-eye coordination, speedy reaction times, strategic thinking, and puzzle solving.  It is also an activity, a walled off space, where you socialize with friends.  It’s a social thing, particularly when it’s played on larger consoles with others in the room. In China, the norm might seem less sociable if the gaming takes place in arcades or alone on a mobile phone.

While young boys thrive on these games, there is a belief, held by a majority of adults in the U.S., that the amount of gun violence in video games contributes to a “great deal or a fair amount” of gun violence.  82% of people age 65 and older hold this opinion, and your grandparents might be in that age cohort! Their causal inference could be wrong. 

Play it WITH Grandpa!

Perhaps kids who are lonely and emotionally unhinged,  seek out video games. Was that the rationale in China to limit games? We don’t know. Officially, I have read there was concern about poor eyesight (myopia), college readiness, and protecting kids’ physical and mental health.  Be able to sidestep these concerns when you talk with your grandparents! 

That said, are there multi generational video games that you can make your grandparents take an interest in, or share an online language-tool?  One option is to show them how Roblox Studio works, and create a new game personalized with their input. You may be able to convince them that your programming skill and their creativity will be your ticket to engineering school.

Private Instagram Account for Kids?

A cartoon of kids looking at Instagram site but also checking their age as they might be too young to be online. From TechCrunch.
Private Instagram Account for Kids? Image: Bryce Durbin, Techcrunch- 2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I read that Instagram might allow kids under age 13 to get online, providing their accounts are private. My ten year old is asking me to set up an account for him like this, and I am undecided. He is a good student and helps me a lot with my other kids who are too young to be online. Alison, Daly City

Dear Alison: Ten year old boys like to play video games on consoles and big monitors and they can’t do that privately, out of site. We might learn from them how to jump into social media. As a parent you need to see literally what is going on. You may not enjoy the warfare in some of those video games or the sound blasts from Reels but at least you will be present.

If you let you ten year old set up this Instagram account it has the advantage, as I have written earlier, of being a “provisional account.” Think of it like a learner’s permit for young drivers . You will have access to his postings and can see what is going on. The downside is that it will also be a walled garden. Other young friends that he shares with will presumably have private accounts too. You, the parent will not necessarily have access to these, since they are locked down. Importantly, you cannot assume that other parents will be as conscientious as you, and provide regular oversight of their tweens’ posts.


I have a further issue with private accounts as they “violate” a principle of social media, which is to share things as community. Let’s say that your son posts an unflattering picture of a girl in his classroom. You may casually dismiss it, but the photo is tagged and another classmate innocently reposts this photo from your son’s “private” site. Pretty soon that disturbing or embarrassing picture, with the girl’s name, is in circulation. She may have to answer to it for some time to come. It’s no wonder that teens prefer Snapchat, where the posts and photos disappeared every 24 hours. Until, read my earlier post they did not. It’s hard to imagine a social media site that does not have leaky edges. The official Instagram site says that privacy protects young people.

For what it’s worth, a contemporary parent has a new entry in their job description: they must find healthy ways to get kids on the road to social media and help them develop mental muscles to think through issues before they post. It’s like that provisional year when you and your teen have a learner’s license to drive together; you model good behavior and they internalize the rules of the road.

Make it ‘All IN’

Perhaps you have family reunions, a hobby, nature pictures, or a pet that can become your content vehicle for a public account and substitute for the “private” one. Your son gets the experience of taking pictures for it, scanning responses, and feeling part of this extended group. You meanwhile are able to look over his shoulder, so to speak, and share parental wisdom and advice, particularly when the content seems lewd or off-color. You cannot permanently shield him from inappropriate content on the Internet, but you can, at this young age, provide some lessons and model good behavior. By the way, it’s not just about content. It’s also about the time spent, and how it subtracts from alternative activities he could do.

Finally, I would recommend that you all engage in this family account on a laptop or desk computer, so that it remains a public and shared experience. Viewing it on the phone elevates it to a private one-on-one experience.