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?

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.

How Much Screen Time?

When I get the notification of my weekly screen time I ignore it. Why?

A screen shot of the weekly Screentime reporting on an iPhone
how much screentime the past week?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Once a week (on Sundays) my iPhone sends a pop-up notification that reports how much screen time I have spent during the past week. I get a separate pop-up on my iPad. My question is not how to combine these two numbers, but rather, why is it that I ignore both of them? Kwame, San Francisco

Dear Kwame: You know, of course, you can turn this notification off, but it’s a good that you are thinking about its role. When Apple introduced this service back in 2018 on iOS 12, it was heralded as the long-awaited  tool to moderate phone use and behaviors. Screen time measures the time spent on apps and websites, how often you pick up the phone and (ironically) what  notifications are turned on.

The 2018 release was oriented towards parents: they might use it to manage their children’s content on the screen.  Although they are adults today, the offspring of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were raised with limited access to technology. It’s noteworthy that children born after 2010 are truly the first all-phone, all-the-time generation.

Getting Accountable

In some ways, reporting the total time spent on the Internet is like stepping on a scale to get your weight. You get a measurement that you can hold yourself accountable to. And, as Apple intended, if you have young children or teens, that number could be a blunt tool:  for example, 1 hour of homework equals 20 minutes of screentime.  That said, there are many ways that clever children will find work-arounds, including downloading games to play off-line, resetting the phone’s clock, and even re-routing the family’s router. Nonetheless, boundaries and rules still count.

When I received your question, I asked adult friends why, like you, they don’t pay much attention to the weekly notification. The most common response was that a single number rolls up “good” uses of the phone, say for navigation or following  an hour-long mindfulness app, plus the “bad” uses, like scrolling on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The screen time feature  also detail  how much time was spent on each app, so technically you could do addition and subtraction.

Staying Accountable

That said, ‘time’ on device is still ‘time’ on device  Our eyes, and physical presence have to rest. We also need to change scenery, and be in the fresh air.  Significantly, we need to interact and spend time with other people, in- person. In 2013, five years before Apple introduced the Screentime measure, film-maker Tiffany Shlain, recommended that we take a Digital Sabbath, to manage our digital selves, restore our well being, and promote family togetherness. Watch the video to see her explain the value of the Digital Sabbath- a single day of the week in which we power off our electronic devices and empower ourselves.

Ironically, your own screen time notification arrives on Sunday, traditionally a day of rest. Making people more accountable and aware of their habits began with energy conservation.  Electric utilities and water companies chose to report month to month usage data. People ignored that. Then, social psychologists discovered that the numerical reporting had more impact when it compared consumption in “your home” with the average energy consumption of neighboring users.

Perhaps there is a lesson here- a social element that smartphone users might respond to.  I imagine a classroom teacher might use this to their advantage if they were teaching a course in digital literacy, and parents on Instagram could find new and clever ways to report on that site  how their child “underachieves.”

Reading Routine: Print or Digital? Go Newspaper!

Bookstores are closed. From now on will digital reading be the norm for kids?

A sketch of a young boy and a young girl sitting back to back reading. Is their reading routine print or digital?
Should kid’s reading routine be print or digital? credit:

Dear Ms Smartphone: We had a reading routine before the pandemic and took our kids to the bookstore every other Saturday for story time drop-in. During the pandemic that ceased and I had to get my three girls their own personal laptop computers and iPads so that they could get their school books online and keep up. This was not a hardship for us. But I’ve noticed that they never pick up a book any more. Is this a permanent change? Luis, Los Angeles

Dear Luis: The pandemic changed a lot of habits, and none more than reading since libraries and bookstores were not deemed to be essential businesses. The necessity to download texts and literature means we finally arrived at the ‘Age of New Media.’

As a parent caught between old and new media, it’s hard to say what is the better reading routine.  At the risk of being nostalgic, you probably want to be in the same space as your girls when they curl up with a story book and are drawn in by the words. While you trust them, you can never be sure when they read from a computer or iPad, that they are actually on the text and not engaged with something else.  

Reading or Browsing?

It’s noteworthy that there are digital fixes for this.  Kids know, faster than they can enjoin you to “stay in your lane” to speed toggle between open screens. Meanwhile, parents have their own digital weapons with screen time apps and reading countdowns.  That said, measures of spent time can be easily gamed.

Of course, digital conundrums bring digital opportunities. For example, if you have a loving grandma or family friend across town, they can now replicate story-time with your children. Kids and grandma download the same book, and then spend quality time reading aloud to each other from their tablets.

Browsing the literature too!

There is a fair amount of literature circa 2010-2015 about the differences  when children learn to read online versus in print. You can check some of these, and also note an author and educator, Maryanne Wolf, who specifically views print as the choice medium. Here in 2021, I am not sure that we are going to be able to make these side by side comparisons of print versus digital learning anymore.  Texts are changing and getting shorter.  Cyber media is integrated into everything we do – from cradle to grave. There are no more before and after experiments.

But, as a fellow parent, that is not a good enough answer. Kids are not in a laboratory. We can’t wait 20 years to find out whether print or digital media is better for developing strong reading skills. So, do a straddle. First, make sure that there is a ‘working’ book case in your home, and restock it regularly!  If you instill a reading habit, your children will mirror that. Soon, as businesses  re-open, you can resume your trips to the bookstore, or the library.

It’s At Your Doorstep!

Finally,  I would also encourage you to subscribe to a daily newspaper- one  delivered to your doorstep. It’s not just because DearSmartphone loves newspapers!  These are the vehicle for you to have a regular, ongoing discussion over the kitchen table, and, like our food,  the print menu changes daily. It’s a tool to mull over local pictures, news stories, and sports with your kids and even submit your own.  Most Sunday papers have special sections for young readers that you can keep around all week. Or, just follow the horoscope and comics together. It’s a way to bring print reading into their everyday lives and assure that as a family you also share meaning and local community.