Digital Content and Newspapers

A cartoon from newspapers.org suggesting that newspapers are key during a pandemic, along with soap and sanitizer.
Digital Content and Newspaper Subscriptions. Source: newspapers.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I see your point about civics and reading a newspaper or magazine with kids at home (I have one in college and three at home).  But, it’s really impossible to get it delivered where we live. The paper ends up not coming most days, and when it does, it lands in a boggy part of our lawn. Sometimes it just disappears. So, what’s wrong with digital content and newspapers?  Ollie, Oakland

Dear Ollie, Here’s the irony. Publishers believe that people are turning to digital content for newspapers because they prefer it.  Actually, the exodus from tree pulp from starts with the little things like a dialogue with the overseas call center or a wonky web site. It’s hard to reach a human and stop or start a delivery. Often, as you note, the paper doesn’t come at all. 

Shared experience

The major reason I advocate that you and your children still read a physical newspaper is that it can be a shared experience. If you read the news on a phone or a tablet your children don’t know whether you are looking at a story, browsing for a new car, scrolling Facebook, or playing a video game. And, reciprocally, as a parent, you don’t know what they are doing either. With that in mind, you might if the budget allows, reserve a laptop for their schoolwork and a separate device, say an Xbox, for social and games. That way you can keep better tabs.

You also want to read the physical newspaper because context matters as well as content. Say you are reading topical news stories about the subway collapse in Mexico City. Your children might be afraid to ride BART and take public transportation after they see the pictures. You have the opportunity to provide background, and impart them with knowledge that this is a very rare event.

Reading light and deep

But, another reason for reading the newspaper, think academic again, is that it inculcates better reading skills. With a digital paper, readers are more likely to skim and not go in depth- despite the opportunity to use outside links and sources. I have previously written about the differences between reading in print versus reading digitally. But, if your kids are doing research, the digital paper might be valuable, particularly for highly visual articles and timelines. 

On the Internet- when Facebook or Twitter delivers the news, we experience a “filter bubble,” so named by A. Parnisi back in 2010. Based on your expressed interests and past viewings, an algorithm predicts stories that will engage you. It winnows the news stories into into a handful of items that you will click on. That click, in turn, initiates ads, targeted just for you. When you read a print paper, the “filter bubble” is bigger- an editorial staff picks and prints say 30 stories a day and there’s no linking between ads, clicks, and customers.  And, there is the serendipity of discovering something you and your family would not normally see or read. 

Breaking the Breaking Cycle

That said, Facebook and Twitter are the hands-down winner when it comes to hearing late-breaking, real-time news stories. The print newspaper cannot compete. However, and it’s a serious question, are we the wiser for this, or is it another type of distraction? Almost all breaking news stories are of a distant environments that we cannot act upon or control. Should there be  a news event of local significance, say an out-of-control fire or a traffic jam-up, you are likely to get notifications on your phone.  Watching a distant breaking new story, in this case, news of the Boston Marathon bombing, was associated with impacts on mental well being.

So, summing up, what do you do when the newspaper doesn’t quite make it to your doorstep. Perhaps you can subscribe to media that comes in the post, like a weekly magazine. Or you can make a fun trip on foot or in the car to get a latte and a newspaper. Both cost about the same, and you can share the latter.  Most public libraries have both print and digital editions of papers, but that is not going to help you with the family time.

Too Much Screentime?

Too much screentime? A montage of cartoon like kids on screens. From commonsensemedia.
Too much Screentime? Image: Commonsensemedia.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My daughter, age seven, watches way too much screentime since the pandemic and I want to undo this. What’s the best way to get us back to normal? Going cold turkey seems impossible? Marney, New York

Dear Marney,  It’s a timely question- there is a new phrase called “collaboration equity” to describe how offices, and perhaps schools, will emerge from the pandemic. Those who are remote must be able to participate on equal footing with those physically present. Hopefully this is not an issue for younger people, and New York schools will reopen this Fall. However, there’s a long and daunting summer ahead, and too much screentime?

In a recent column I overviewed some vital steps that parents can take but I will add to them here. There is not a single work-around, a magic wand, that will transport families back to simpler days before the pandemic.  But, I do have three fixes. 

A Lean Screen

First, if you want your daughter to reduce her screentime then it’s up to parents to be the screen mentor. This is going to be a challenge if you are still working from home full or part time. But, if your child sees you ‘working’ on a laptop or phone, they can’t differentiate whether you are in a meeting, ordering groceries, or chatting with girlfriends. Screentime is screentime and children will mimic habits of their elders. So, if you want your child to cut back on screentime, you will have to do so together.

Nix the MIX

Another way to reduce screen time is to nix using the smartphone phone as a multi-task accessory. Phones can be  substitutes for flashlights, microscopes (with attachments), cameras, alarm clocks, timers, address books, calendars, and of course, games. Instead of using these, introduce the seven year old to some replays! Replace games with a deck of cards and a cardboard puzzle,  build an A-Z index card file instead of using the online address book, and use a plug in clock instead of the digital wake-up. Photos and photo storage may be the hardest function to give up, but since you are trying this out for a few months,  get an old fashioned Polaroid type camera and see what develops!

A New Norm..Away

Finally, one of the best ways to do a reset is to change the environment and hence, the daily habits that go along with it. In some deeper, older behavioral studies, psychologists found that they could affect the behavior of young mothers (I believe it was towards diaper use), if they changed the Mom’s physical environment. In a new setting, the Moms were more open to doing things differently and trying out a different norm.

Changing up the environment has a lot of merit this coming summer for kids and  families, coming out of the  lock down. Getting outdoors and going to the park is one thing, but taking a six week visit  to summer camp or to the grandparents is an order of magnitude better. Getting away would be a great way to undo those sticky screen habits. That said, you need to find a summer camp that has strict controls on screen time, and does the equivalent of putting phones in Yondr bags when the kids check in. Likewise, time with Grandma is not going to change screen habits if she is glued to watching TV shows for several hours a day, or, if a more contemporary grandma, she swaps out TV viewing time for the Internet. You need grandparents that read books aloud, take your daughter to the library, and even encourage her to compose stories on her own (perhaps describing those Polaroid pictures!)

You are not alone trying to figure out how kids will adjust to these post-pandemic times. Cut yourself some slack as you try out new activities and behaviors. There are really two layers of change going on- change that comes from staying indoors and out of school during the pandemic, and change that occurs because a six or seven year old is growing up, getting social, and leaving behind early childhood.

Screen Time or School Time?

Returning to the classroom. How to wean kids from screens to school?

A cartoon of four children holding phones to text each other.  Above their head is a giant Covid like mask with an envelope!
Screentime or Schooltime? dreamstime.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Conflict here between school time and screen time! Finally my twins are back in middle school (yay) but they used their tablets and phones so much during the lock down that they are having a hard time giving them up. They play online games when they get up, pull phones out when they board the school bus, and then whip them out for social media when they get home. I can’t really blame them, because tablets and phones were their lifeline this past year. Lindsay, Santa Monica

Dear Lindsay: First, the big picture. You mentioned that the twins are in middle school, so they were probably born around 2008 or later. They are the first generation that will grow up with smartphones from cradle to grave. We, as adults, don’t quite know what to make of that. Imagine what it was like 100 years ago when our great-grandparents experienced an entirely new mobility, as travel transitioned from horse and buggy to cars.

I mention this so you cut them some slack. Digital tech is going to grow up alongside them and they will use it in ways that we, as elders, cannot imagine today. But, to you immediate question, how do you wean kids from screen time to school time?

It’s a dialogue

Begin with a screen time conversation with their classroom teachers, other parents, and even the middle-school principal. This was the same advice I gave this past summer when kids were schooling in pods. It’s vital that kids on the playground are talking with each other, not over their phones and text.

Some schools have successfully banned phone use during recess and lunch. During the school day, you must exercise equal restraint, and never text or phone, even if they forgot their lunch money or your afternoon pickup changes.

Of Parenting Mind

In last week’s column I mentioned two parenting tips: Try out Tiffany Shlain’s program for a family-oriented Tech Shabbat, and second, make the screen time feature on the iPhone work for you. As a parent, you need to set boundaries- so add phone time to the learning list. You can customize the app so that the twins are restricted say on Snapchat, but not on other sites.

Finally, and this is the key take away: hopefully you, or a friend, can be there for your kids after school, or have them join an outdoor activity group. As Covid winds down, we all need to make a 180 degree U-Turn, and be committed to being out- of- doors instead of inside. Here in late Spring, it’s a good time to start taking after-school bike rides, hikes, or nature walks. If you live in the city, go to the park.

Of Out of Doors

And, with summer coming and school letting out just as it got started, you don’t want them back at home, sitting on their phones and tablets. Explore a day- camp that prioritizes out-of-door activities, and specifically bans phones or collects them in Yondr bags. If you can afford it or can get a scholarship, consider a sleep-over camp with an explicit phone-off policy.

These Covid-weary kids need to be immersed in outdoor activities and learn new skills like knots, ropes, and basic survival skills. More than ever, this age group needs to discover that basic survival rests beyond their digital devices. Although they are the face of a digital future, they need to see how earlier people got by.

So, hopefully, in the wild they will learn how ancient people navigated by the stars, not by their phones. They will see memory embedded in the the rings of trees. And the phone’s vivid time-lapse photography might still pale after witnessing daybreak and a fresh morning sunrise.