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How To Teach Your Kids About Screens When Screens Are Your Job

Modeling appropriate use of smartphones and the Internet is tricky–especially when you spend most of your waking hours working on them.

How To Teach Your Kids About Screens When Screens Are Your Job
[Photo: Flickr user Traci Lawson]

“Can you put your phone down and talk to me?”

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Plenty of parents make that exasperated request to their teenaged children, but in my husband’s case, he’s talking to me. Sometimes I feel more like his 11th-grade daughter than his wife as he beseeches me to just turn off social media and live more in the real world.

I could certainly live without a little less iPhone, but I don’t think moving to a largely analog life would be the best decision. As a writer and blogger, it’s part of my job to jump online and post my work, discuss stories with readers, and interact with followers to keep my accounts lively. Our older son certainly likes YouTube videos and scrolling through my photos, but doesn’t rely upon screens too much to entertain him. Could that change for the worse, though, because of my own smartphone habits?

Parents are frequently instructed to limit kids’ screen time, but aside from just providing entertainment and distraction, for many of us, smartphones, laptops, and tablets are a large part of our professional lives. Is it possible to be an online person and be a good parent as well?

I started by asking the most popular Internet parent (and, disclosure, friend of mine) that I know: vlogger, young adult author, and father of two John Green. He has 4.6 million Twitter followers, 2.6 million YouTube subscribers, and 2.1 million Instagram fans—but his kids are not among them. “My son is interested in YouTube but not very interested in my work,” Green says. That’s not to say that his kids live an idyllic screen-free life. “If I let my children look at screens as much as they want to, they would never do anything else,” he says.

Besides limiting what they themselves do on devices, he’s also wary of pulling his kids into his social-media orbit. Green’s fans are legion and active, which makes him cautious when it comes to sharing his kids online. His first child was born in 2010, when “our audience was very different and it was a lot more intimate. I did put Henry in some videos in the beginning, but then when The Fault in Our Stars came out, things changed and the audience felt much more public,” he says. Green and his wife then stopped sharing images of their children online. “I want them to choose whether they have a private life. However, I don’t begrudge people who want to share their kids’ lives online.”

One of those parents who does incorporate her kids into her online world is Jordan Reid, who runs the fashion and design blog Ramshackle Glam, whose posts frequently star her young kids. Like me, she feels an obligation to the Internet (“There’s a sense of having to be constantly ‘on call’”) and says that the amount of time she spends in front of a screen with her children nearby is a source of “tremendous” guilt.

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Reid has decided to be up front by showing her four-year-old son her site and explaining her work to him (her daughter is still too young to understand). She allows him to take photos for the site and deposits payments she receives for kid-centered sponsored posts into their own bank accounts. “I modeled when I was a child, so it’s something I’m comfortable with my children doing, only as long as they enjoy it.”

Reid has noticed that her son drifts towards screens, so has set up rules about when he’s allowed to watch cartoons or play with educational apps, but has been careful not to frame his access as a reward. “I don’t want him feeling like screen time is as good as it gets, you know?” While working on figuring out her kids’ and her own boundaries, Reid was relieved on a recent car trip to discover that her son voluntarily spent time gazing out the window or playing with string.

Ellen Wartella, professor at Northwestern University, is a longtime researcher of the effects media have on children. She says that the American Academy of Pediatrics is currently rethinking its current recommendation of a two-hour screen-time limit per day for children over two years old due to the way technology has changed in the last 10 years. There’s a big difference, she says, between watching endless hours of YouTube cartoons and Facetiming with grandma.

Wartella’s research has shown that children’s interest in and use of technology is driven by parents. “The baby isn’t going to be asking for the iPad; parents are going to be giving it to him,” she says (so if you didn’t already feel guilty enough about your flaws as a parent, your kid’s screen use is something to add to your list). That’s not to say, however, that a kid who knows his way around an iPhone is necessarily a bad thing. “I don’t think there’s anything morally superior about not having technology in your life,” she says.

Matt Wood, a film editor with Whitehouse Post, has technology in his life more than he would like, as he frequently cuts commercials at home and on the weekends. Like Green and Reid, his children are attracted to screens, but he’s found that his children, aged 18, 11, and 8, actually seem to crave screen boundaries. “It’s kind of strange, it’s like they know exactly where they stand when we limit it. If we’re wishy-washy about it, that’s when it starts to be like, ‘Can I use it now?’” But as long as he and his wife present a united front (“My kids are very good at going from one parent to another to see if there’s a weak link”), the children respect their parents’ limits.

Wood has found that his children seem to understand the difference between when he’s in front of the computer or phone for work and when he’s just on it for fun. “If my wife and I are using it the way just anyone uses it, that’s when they give me shit about it.”

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This seems to reflect the emphasis Wartella puts on modeling for children. “You have to think about which behaviors you want to show your children,” she says. “Raising healthy kids means providing a lot of different opportunities for their children. You have to model doing other things, the way you model eating good food.” The food analogy is helpful because it makes things feel more manageable and less judge-y. I am unlikely to purge all sugar from our lives, but that doesn’t negate the presence of vegetables.

“What I suggest is that parents think about their own time that they spend with media,” says Wartella. “It becomes easier for them to think about what they want to relate to their children.”

This advice makes me think not just about the times I whip out my phone but also feel pretty good about my son’s screen-free time, which is a much bigger part of his day. It’s less daunting and guilt-inducing to consider that there is a healthy, happy middle ground between a screen-free and a screen-addicted child. I think I am more in the moment than not, and I hope that’s an achievable and realistic model to set for my kids. Just like with sugar, sometimes is fine, all the time is not.

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About the author

Since 2002, Claire Zulkey has run the blog Zulkey.com. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Jezebel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the Los Angeles Times.

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