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A book for wise (digital) parenting

The Art of Screen Time, by NPR’s Anya Kamenetz, could not be more timely. What with hearings and headlines about digital privacy, so much talk about “tech addiction,” and bad advice about “screen time,” parents deserve this haven from the storm. And it’s a haven not just because Kamenetz is a great reporter with sources representing multiple perspectives and disciplines. Also because she knows first-hand what parents are hungry for.

book cover“I’m not presenting myself to you as an unassailable expert,” she writes. “I’m just a parent, one with a solid research toolbox, trying to work this stuff out as best I can. I’ve been writing about education and technology for over a decade. I became a parent in 2011,” she adds, and what she found, as so many of us have found for a good 20 years, is – where the digital parts of parenting are concerned – a lot of clickbait-style “information,” no digital Dr. Spock, no advice even our own parents could pass down, a whole lot of parent bloggers representing a confusing spectrum of expertise, and a baby research field that (sometimes admittedly) based studies on adults’ concerns not children’s actual experiences.

So whatever helps you most as a parent – the latest research, parenting tips, other parents’ stories or the author’s own – it’s here for you, all of it grounded in the ancient wisdom I subscribe to too, that perfection is the enemy of the good where parenting’s concerned. Kamenetz isn’t the first author or researcher to suggest that parents cut themselves a little slack; she’s part of a growing school of thought. Authors Devorah Heitner (Screenwise), Gallit Breen (Kindness Wins) and Shefali Tsabari (The Conscious Parent) come to mind, as does the research of Alicia Blum-Ross, Sonia Livingstone and danah boyd.

Probably a dandelion

Even if you’d just as soon move quickly past the research, there’s a metaphor on p. 31 that you might find helpful: “dandelions vs. orchids.” Patti Valkenburg, a researcher at University of Amsterdam Kamenetz cites, applies that metaphor from developmental psychology to media effects as well. “The idea is that most children are dandelions,” Kamenetz writes. “They are hardy, resilient. They can thrive in a wide range of settings. A few children, however, are orchids. They’re highly sensitive to severe consequences if their environment is less than optimal. They also have greater-than-normal sensitivity to excellent nurturing.”

This is important because the first 15+ years of Internet safety messaging seemed to suggest that all online kids are orchids. In fact, after completing the US’s most comprehensive youth-online-risk lit review up to that point, a national task force I served on at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center pointedly countered that misconception by reporting that “minors are not all equally at risk online,” and that a child’s online risk level has so much more to do with what’s going on in their head and home and school environments than with what tech or media they’re using. At any given moment, it’s individual, situational and contextual. Certainly we all, including our kids, have orchid moments, online as well as offline.

The dandelions vs. orchids metaphor also syncs up with what the EU Kids Online researchers found about resilience and online safety. Resilience is a true safeguard – and it doesn’t develop in a child when their parents try to remove all risk from their media and other experiences. “Risk and resilience go hand in hand, as resilience can only develop through exposure to risks or stressful events,” wrote Leen d’Haenens, Sofie Vandoninck and Verónica Donoso of EU Kids Online. “Consequently, as children learn how to adequately cope with (online) adversities, they develop (online) resilience.” [Resilience can also be taught, or nurtured, says clinical psychologist Mary K Alvord, who co-wrote a book on how.]

‘Screen time’ questionable

The only thing I don’t like about this book is “screen time” in its title, for a lot of reasons, including the guilt and anxiety the term triggers in parents and the “gender and class dimensions” of the narrative behind it, according to researcher (and parent) Alicia Blum-Ross. It’s also just plain ridiculous because “screen time” is so individual and encompasses so much. For one thing, there are three whole categories of “screen time” activity – passive, creative and interactive – and how do you generalize all that? But titles are aimed at selling books not representing research, so the title gets a pass. ;)

I think the reason why we seek out books like this – at least, the reason for our concerns – is more about the unanticipated rapid change in our lives and societies than about smartphone effects. It’s like the ground is shifting under everybody’s feet so fast that, more than ever, we have no idea what the world will be like when our kids move out into it. About all we know is that there won’t be less digital media. So what I’m seeing in the research and thankfully in this book is that the best way to prepare them for their world is to work with them in the media and tech of right now, giving them some space for trial and error – their own developmental risk assessment – and learning along with them (emphasis on “with”). Sometimes we’re teaching them, sometimes they’re teaching us.

The Art of Screen Time doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Rather, it tells – and enables – its readers to think before becoming, over-reliant on tech tools, oblivious to media’s effects or orchid tenders. It’s a great book.

Related links

  • More access does not mean more harm“; “The percentage of children harmed as a result of being online has decreased”; and “Parents increasingly monitor children’s online activities, but they restrict girls’ use of the internet more than boys” – key findings in a new book, Between Selfies and WhatsApps, about research done throughout Europe and Latin America
  • What’s missing: “In the lively debate about privacy and data protection in the digital age, the voices and experiences of children are largely absent, as is attention to their specific needs, rights and opportunities beyond, arguably, a panicky risk discourse that presumptively speaks for yet rarely hears from children,” wrote internationally known UK researcher Sonia Livingstone in the abstract of “Privacy literacy, consent and vulnerable users: Children and the General Data Protection Regulation,” a paper she gave at the Oxford Internet Institute.
  • Politics vs. science: Amy Orben, lecturer at the University of Oxford, on “Why [UK Health Secretary] Hunt’s screen time limits for kids are scientific nonsense” in The Guardian
  • About that correlation: “It’s time for a serious talk about the science of tech ‘addiction'” at Wired, in which another Oxford scholar, Andrew Przybylski, told science reporter Robbie Gonzalez, “I have the data set [Dr. Jean Twenge] used open in front of me, and I submit to you that, based on that same data set, eating potatoes has the exact same negative effect on depression. That the negative impact of listening to music is 13 times larger than the effect of social media.” He was referring to her correlation between teens’ social media use and depression on which she’s basing her latest book. And this blog post of mine presents pushback from seven other scholars.
  • How dropping screentime rules can fuel extraordinary learning,” by parent and scholar Mimi Ito, PhD, of the Connected Learning Alliance
  • No, the Internet is not actually stealing kids’ innocence,” by psychology professor Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics
  • Screen time: Mental health menace or scapegoat? at CNN
  • The fear list: “Seven fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age,” by scholars Madeleine George and Candice Odgers in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science and, related, Internet safety’s “three alarmist assumptions,” by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center
  • Safety from the inside out: The overwhelming focus of Internet safety’s first 20 years was on external safety “tools” – from digital parental controls to school policies and family “contracts” to a fire hose-ful of “advice.” Depending on their quality and a lot of other factors, those have their place but, as I suggested five years ago here, need to be balanced with the internal safety tools that will make our kids safer long after they’ve left our care: resilience, empathy, media literacy, ethics, social competency, self-regulation, strong family narratives, and an inner guidance system or moral compass, all of which make up that all-important “filter” in their heads that actually improves with use.
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