According to a recent survey by the toy company Melissa & Doug, 70% of parents want their children to spend less time watching electronic media and 62% want them to spend less time on electronic devices. They are right. After all, studies show that screen time is associated with higher levels of obesity, shorter attention spans and more psychological problems, including higher rates of depression. The new year is as good a time as any to rethink your house rules.
A media diet is just like a regular diet. If you're not consistent in the first few weeks and months, you will fail. You can lay out a couple of exceptions for your kids ahead of time — car rides longer than two hours, trips to the emergency room. But if you start with no screen time on school nights, and then you make an exception because you need to do some work, you should expect that your kids will ask you for screens the next night and the one after that. If you let them play on your phone in the line at the supermarket, they will take note and expect you to supply them with screens when they are forced to wait anywhere for anything. They know how to wear you down.
But keep in mind, you cannot simply remove the devices and offer nothing in return. As any nutritionist will tell you, deprivation is not sustainable, substitution is. When you take away phones and tablets, you have to give your kids other things — more time outside, more low-tech toys or more time with you.
A significant temptation of technology is its portability. In a widely read rant in the Washington Post, Amanda Kolson Hurley wrote about our culture of "snackism" for kids: "We walk around with trail mix and Sun Chips stuffed in our bags like we're mobile, no-fee vending machines." The same is true of our digital devices. Kids used to sit too long in front of the TV. But at least once you got them out of the house, that was the end of it. Now the TV can be on perpetually and parents can dispense movies and video games like mobile, no-fee theaters and arcades. Snackism means children eat when they're not hungry; on-demand screen time is no better for them.
Too often our diets are ruined by impulse buys. If we go to the grocery store with a list and stick to it, everything goes well. But confronted with a plate of hors d'oeuvres or brownies, we give in. When we dole out the devices after planning our kids' screen time and thinking carefully (and even researching) how much time and what kinds of activities our children should be engaged in on screens, things go well. But when we feel pressured into handing over a phone or granting permission to watch or play something on the fly, they don't.
You shouldn't give your kids their own phone lightly, or for the sake of convenience. The McDonald's drive-through is a more convenient option than cooking at home, but that doesn't make it a good choice. A recently formed group called Wait Until 8th is suggesting parents hold off on kids' phones until they're in the eighth grade — and even then offering a flip phone, not a smartphone. The group points to research suggesting that having a cellphone interferes with sleep (parents confirm that 9-year-olds are regularly texting into the night) and the formation of relationships (taking phones away for even a few days seems to increase children's abilities to read facial cues accurately). Along with all the other negatives, mobile phones are a distraction from schoolwork. And that's not even considering the potential content that kids can be exposed to — cyberbullying and pornography.
One pediatrician told me that a number of parents have given their children phones simply because they've bought a new phone for themselves and, hey, what else are they going to do with the old one? Some parents just want to make sure their children are tethered to them at all times — "What if my daughter gets upset at a birthday party and needs to come home?" the mother of one 9-year-old with an iPhone asked me. Parents don't have to be Uber. Kids can be given a watch and a time to meet after swim practice or gymnastics. If they need to leave an event early, kids can ask the adult present to contact you. This has the added advantage of teaching them independence and responsibility.
It's OK to be a hypocrite about your own phone use versus theirs. Yes, we can all use a little less time on our screens — adults included — but rules can be legitimate, even if they aren't the same for you and your kids. You don't give your kids alcohol or the keys to the car. Why should they have the same access to devices you do?
Most adults know what they should be eating and they don't substitute candy bars for vegetables. They also know the pleasure of shutting off distractions to read a good novel or to focus on the company of friends and family. But if you never experience getting lost in a good book all afternoon or enjoying time outside without worrying about checking your phone, will you be able to create these experiences as an adult? Kids would no doubt prefer a Milky Way to a salad for dinner, just as they'd like to do and see what they want on your phone or better yet, their own. Don't budge.
Naomi Schaefer Riley's latest book is the just-published "Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat."