The New Fatherhood
The New Fatherhood
The Great Screen Time Debate with Jacqueline Nesi

The Great Screen Time Debate with Jacqueline Nesi

TNF Podcast #005: Examining our relationship with technology, and the role it plays in the lives of our children
Illustration by Tony Johnson

I’d wager you’ve already spent longer thinking about screen time than your parents did during your entire childhood. It’s on our minds, even before they’re born. Because the world today is different—I might not have walked to school through miles of snow in my bare feet, but I did have to get by on a lowly two hours of kids’ TV on a Saturday morning. Today, thousands of cartoons are only a tap away. Digital displays are ubiquitous—in our homes and in our pockets—and they provide parents with both a necessary breather and a worrying vision for the future.

My parents used to let me sit in front of the Super Nintendo until all hours, happy to have a quiet kid who could keep himself occupied. There were occasional warnings, sure: ”Don’t sit too close to the TV, your eyes will turn square.” I’d have to stop sometime after the sun went down, placing the controller on top of the TV, before heading to bed and dreaming of moustachioed plumbers.

Parents today are more wary of technology's role in raising kids. We agonise over the right age our kids can start watching TV, holding strong opinions that get thrown out of the window when we realise the magical ability Cocomelon has in enabling a wild child to sit still and eat for 10 minutes.

In the early days of The New Fatherhood, I wrote an essay titled “The Case for Screen Time.” It was a provocation based on a kernel of truth: if my parents had been stricter about the time I spent in front of screens, my life would have followed a very different arc. It's only with hindsight I can trace the line from hobby to career—a young boy figuring out how to make a PC work, hammering commands into MS-DOS; a part-time job fixing computers for beer money in college; the Computer Science degree I graduated with, leading to a job working on a website for a record store. This throughline took me into advertising and technology and took my family half a world away (and back again.) Even this—whether you’re reading or listening to it—is that line, continuing into the future.

So, like so many parenting conundrums, there's no right answer, but there’s a whole world of other parents who will tell you that you’re doing it wrong. We need better guidance to help us navigate these uncharted waters, and that’s why I’m thankful for the work being done by Dr Jacqueline Nesi in her excellent newsletter Techno Sapiens. I’ve found it an essential resource to help me better understand the challenges I face as a parent today, to make decisions based on data, not fear, and to prepare for what comes next—as my kids get older and mobile phones and social media move into the frame.

I hope you get as much out of this conversation as I did. We discussed much more than what’s underneath, but I’ve only included highlights; the entire transcript ran to 6,500 words, and your email is already telling you you’re running out of space.

Kevin Maguire: What’s the state of play around parenting and technology?

Jacqueline Nesi: “There is currently a negative sentiment out there when it comes to technology use in our kids— we hear a lot of parents talking about guilt about their kid's screen time or a lot of fear about how technology is impacting their kid’s lives. And certainly, there are risks to many of the technologies we're talking about—they’re not all good and there are things to be concerned about. Some of those risks are very real. Some of the negative messaging around technology and social media, in particular, is not representative of the whole picture. And I don't think it reflects the research. There's a lot of concern about the number of minutes our kids spend on their screens. And there's not a lot of research supporting the idea that small differences in the amount of time kids spend really impact their well-being. I think it is more about what they're actually doing during that time with their screens, which seems like an obvious thing but one that we forget about a lot. And also, what else aren’t they're doing? Are screens replacing things that they that they shouldn't be? Or are they just one piece of a generally kind of healthy environment? There's a lot of negativity around and fear around technology. But I do think that some of that is overstated.”

What does the research say about screens during the early years of development?

“During those early years, the American Academy of Paediatrics guidelines in the US (which tend to be pretty conservative) believe that kids under two really shouldn't be using any screens unless it's FaceTime with someone else. But to be totally honest, there isn’t a lot of research supporting that kind of approach. There are a few things that we do know—kids under age two and probably under age three definitely learn best from face-to-face interactions. So you can't—as much as we might want—stick them in front of a YouTube video and hope that that will teach them how to talk. The research from Baby Einstein and those other programmes was that they can't learn from screens in that way. There's no substitute for in-person interaction; they call them “serve and return” interactions, like back and forth with a parent. So they can't learn from it. But if they're using screens on occasion—maybe you need to get something done at home, so you're using a screen to entertain them for a few minutes. Or maybe you want to watch something with them because you're tired or want to take a break. There's no evidence that those kinds of things are harmful in any way.”

What about removing technology as a form of discipline?

“So this is really for parents of teens or preteens. Once their kid has a phone, and what you hear from many parents is that it feels like it's the only thing that works—the only thing their kids care about losing is the phone. I think we need to be careful when we are taking away a device as a form of discipline or as a negative consequence, and there are a few reasons. One is the convenience factor. It can make it hard for you to do your job as a parent when your kid doesn't have their device; if you're relying on it to find the time to pick them up, there are all these things where it can get challenging. Another is that if you think about your own device being taken away, that creates a lot of difficulties for you. So, in terms of school, obviously, in terms of friend connections. But all that said, I don't think this is a situation where you should never do this as a consequence; I think that when it happens, you need to be clear on how long it will last or what your kid has to do to get it back. I see a lot of parents doing the indefinite, “I'm taking away your phone indefinitely.” And that tends to backfire in many cases because kids start to feel helpless around this thing they really need in their life, “I don't even know when or how I'm gonna get it back.” Then it's not even worth trying to behave better or earn it back. So if that's a strategy you might use, I would say make sure that you're very clear from the outset, “Here's how long this is happening.”

Is there a “right” age for a child to get their first phone?

“This is the question on so many parents’ minds. I'll say upfront that there's no one right age; there just isn't. I wish there were—I wish it were easy. We could say, “This is the age”, and then you're done. There are a few factors to be thinking about. One is: what is your kid like? How responsible are they? How do they do with following the rules you've set for other devices? How are they with regulating their use? Some kids are going to be able to handle a phone just fine, and for others, it's going to be more challenging. So you want to know your kid. You want to think too about their social setting—sometimes every kid in their school has a phone at a certain age, and they're the only one. I do think that's something to consider. That's a big deal, and it can be isolating for kids who don't have devices because that's where all the plans are being made. That’s not the thing that should make your decision, but it is something to take into consideration. And the third thing to consider is what kind of device. You could always go with a flip phone or a non-smartphone of some kind. There are devices like the Bark Phone or the Gabb Phone, which have restrictions in terms of what they can access, so they might not be able to access social media, but they can text and call, and it looks like a smartphone, and maybe it’s not as embarrassing as carrying around a flip phone.”

What are some of the things parents could do better in this space?

“I think sometimes—for young kids in particular—screens are something they want to be using in many cases. And sometimes there's not necessarily consistency in kids knowing when they can and can't use the screen. So you'd have something set up where it's “the weekends we do this” or having a certain time of day, making it a routine. Being consistent about it can help mitigate some of the tantrums or upset that can come from wanting to use screens more than you can as a kid. You often see battles when it's time to turn off the screen. I think one kind of mistake that parents make sometimes is that once that battle starts, they give in; parents who say, “I'm not dealing with this right now”, and give the screen back, but then what that does is it reinforces that if they have enough of an outburst, they'll get to continue using the screen. So, as hard as it is trying to be consistent, when screen time is over, screen time is over. Stick to your guns. It’s so hard, but it’s essential.”

If there was one thing that you wished all parents understood about technology, what would it be?

“That’s a good question. I know this is going to be boring, but I think I would reiterate that there are both benefits and risks. I know that's a boring answer. But so much of how parents view this is fear about the negatives and feeling like there's this inevitable harm that will happen as soon as their kids are introduced to devices. And that's just not the case. The key is figuring out how to maximise the good parts and minimise the bad ones.”

Piquied your interest? Listen to the whole thing! If you prefer your audio in a proper podcast home, The New Fatherhood is available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastPocket Casts and Amazon Music. Thanks to Jacqueline Nesi for talking to me. You can sign up for her excellent newsletter Techno Sapiens here.

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The New Fatherhood
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Kevin Maguire
Jacqueline Nesi, PhD