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.

Teen Ready for Smartphone?

 Is  Teen ready for Smartphone? A sketch with a violet colored background of a cell phone case and a provisional driver's license. Used  to promote idea of a provisional phone for teens.
Teen: Ready for Smartphone? Hello provisional phone!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Dad reads this column aloud to my brother and me so I hope he will see this. I am ten years old and my birthday is next month. I am responsible and accountable. How do I tell my Dad I am ready to have my own smartphone? Emma, Novato

Dear Emma: This is one clever girl! It sounds like you are a preteen on your way to a smartphone. But, quickly do a financial check in.  If you think it will strain your family’s finances, offer to help.

Since you read the column with Dad you might know that I am a proponent of the provisional phone. Newly minted drivers, and you will be one in five or six years, do not get on the road without adult supervision and training. Provisional drivers engage in classroom instruction, then they spend requisite hours practicing on the road with an adult, and finally they must pass both a written exam and road test. 

Even after they earn their license, there are restrictions about driving after dark, transporting other kids in the car, and, of course, a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs.

Hello Provisional Phones!

In my years in transportation, I always thought we should have similar strictures for kids. While some countries ban phones in schools, parents have to come up with their own rules for home and after school.  How do they know if their teen is ready for a smartphone? You can search more of my articles on provisional phones here, but here’s a glimpse.

Cars are dangerous if we go too fast and ignore the speed limits. On the Internet  there is a similar issue: we need to slow down the velocity of our emotional responses and reactions.  What you post is searchable. So a provisional phone might flash a message before we hit send: “Do you need to post this now? Would you want your parents or teachers to read or see this five years from now…” It sounds like common sense, but in the heat of the Internet it’s easy to forget.

Deep Speeds

In cars we go too fast, but on the Internet we go too deep. If you are not mindful, chatrooms, Tik-Tok and other media lead you down rabbit holes. They subtract time that you would otherwise spend reading a book, getting outdoors, or just being footloose. Even though we have digital connections, we need to nurture spaces so that we remain productive and creative offline.

Finally, your parents and teachers are concerned about the content you will be exposed to. There is, in practicality, no way to shield a clever teen with a curious mind. You will encounter a lot of “trash on the road” and bad actors who run shady sites. In addition, and this is vital, mental health professionals worry about online teens and peer pressure. Social media makes it easy-peasy to bully someone, post an inauthentic self, or make you envious of  someone else’s (doctored) images. 

The Internet would be a better experience if the other drivers, i.e. people on it had real identities, and we could know when we were being bought and sold.  Classes on digital literacy are a first step and maybe your school or library offers instruction on coding and software too. If you spend time in the sausage factory, seeing how apps are written, then you can inspect them for things like SDKs . You will be wiser and less vulnerable.

Minimalist Phones

Finally, and this is where it all begins- you and Dad should have a discussion about hardware. If it was a car, you might pine for something cool, like a Rav4 or a Jeep.. in phone talk that’s an Apple 11 or later and  a Samsung S21 with 5G. It turns out that there  are stripped down phones, called minimalist phones, akin to the old Fords and Chevys of the car world.

 These minimalist phones  have limited features – often phone, text, and GPS or they grey-scale the display (note the affiliate links if you click through). The Boring phone, is a minimalist phone that began as a New Zealand kickstarter campaign with kids specifically in mind. The Boring phone doesn’t appear to be in stock right now. I am not advocating for any particular hardware- for that matter you could get a flip phone and have scaled down features. It sounds like you are asking for more. I hope it works out, and you will write back about the choices after your birthday.

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!