Digital Content and Newspapers

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

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:

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.

Books to Read Aloud for Baby..

Members of a family lying in bed, each one with an electronic device.
Print or Kindle? Time to read aloud!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My wife and I are planning an in-home baby shower (finally!) and we’ve asked guests to gift children’s books to read aloud. Most people like that. But one or two friends say that we are being priggish and old-fashioned. They offered to pool their gift and get us a Kindle and Kindle gift cards instead! I want to be ready to talk about this when they come for the party next month. T.C, San Mateo

Dear T.C., First of all, congratulations and happy celebrations. I totally applaud your gift-giving stance, and would ask your Kindle inclined friends to get you a subscription to a print newspaper or magazine, perhaps a year or two from now. 

First, the trend: if you have visited a bookstore lately or looked at the best sellers’ lists, children’s books are crowding out adult reading. It’s not just for baby showers. Booksellers expect that babies will start out with tactile print pages but young people and adults will shift to downloads. The vital question is ‘at what age does that shift occur’?

That’s important because routines set early in life become habit forming. In the U.S. the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended  no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. This summary of the AAP says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day.   Yet, a recent UK study found that 51% of the 6 to 11 month old infants had daily interaction with the touchscreen, and 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years of age use a touchscreen on a daily basis.

Hidden Screen Time

How do children get so much exposure to digital devices? On a personal level, you might institute a strict rule to read in print. However, well-meaning grandparents, care minders, and daycare are naive to the concern and will use screen time more.  And, sadly, parents aren’t off the hook. Very young children watch their parents and later on, mimic their behaviors. From the outset they observe grownups on their phones- while breastfeeding, in the car, and on the playground.

Still, I’m less worried about the early months as you will have lots of great reading on hand. And, thinking of showers, do we really need all those rubbery books that float in the water for bath time?  Babies books are adorable: they are short, often tactile (think ‘Pat the Bunny‘),  use rhyming sounds  (‘Chicka Chika Boom Boom’), and grand images (‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’). There is probably nothing better than reading aloud with a warm puppy, a cuddly infant, and a great book (perhaps in that order too!).

Time for Tablets?

What I worry about, per the proposed Kindle gift, is a few months beyond- say ages 18 months to two years. Parents get psyched up that tablets will boost their child’s academic readiness, and kids who don’t participate get left behind.  In communications research, there was a similar trend in the 1970’s.  TV distributed programs like  Sesame Street, and instructional software like LeapFrog, were devised to give kids a head start. The discussion is still open as to whether this entertainment approach debases classroom learning and fosters shorter attention spans. Mainstream research says that the programming did have positive effects, especially for disadvantaged kids. They could repeat letters or numbers when they began school, things that are measured in testing.  

The Read-Aloud Guru

While there is a lot of wisdom coming from pediatricians and educators, I’d like to quote a civilian who wrote an earlier book in 1982 and became a spokesperson on the importance of reading aloud to children, particularly as they get older- even to teen years. 

In his swan piece, Jim Telease reflects that both libraries and newspapers are “failing” to raise a generation of readers. Children who come from homes containing the most print- newspapers, books, and magazines- have the highest reading scores. As more American homes go without a daily newspaper, fewer children see a parent reading anything, and the less there is to model on. 


This is the key point (see picture), for while you may be engaged in deep content on your electronic device, chances are your child won’t see it this way. A child mimicking your behavior can’t determine whether you are reading Jonathan Swift, or browsing car ads, emails, and movies. When kids get their own screen time, it’s natural for them to gravitate towards online activities that demand less effort, like videogames and Club Penguin.

So, how do you as a parent encourage child parent interaction, and stave off this digital  devaluation? Having print materials- daily newspapers and magazines around is important. They present an impromptu forum for parents to share reactions out loud, talk them over as a family, and debate ideas. Seeing this may help help kids develop verbal literacy, even if they are little. Aim for newspapers that have a weekly pullout section for younger kids, and find some content in the daily paper (e.g. Dear Smartphone, shameless self promotion!) that you can talk over together.

Meanwhile,  because the print news copies  are physically present, the content can be consumed slowly and enhance memory and information retention. These are skills that help kids academically.  That said, kids reared on digital devices might gain different competencies, like fine-grain visual literacy and keyboarding. 


Anyway, I’d like to end on a lighter note.  Since you are getting so many baby books for the shower, you are sure to get duplicate ones too!  Consider sending them to an out-of-town  grandparent or family member that plans to spend time with your baby. Then they can read together electronically, and turn the pages at the same time!