But my hand-wringing about things being different now, particularly regarding screens, is just…wasted energy. As Jordan Shapiro says in Forbes.com, that ship has sailed: “[C]oncerned adults all need to face facts. Screens are now a ubiquitous part of our lives. It is a technology that has been completely integrated into the human experience. At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles. For better or worse, the transition to screen based digital information technologies has already happened and now resistance is futile.”
Okay, he has a point—I can barely look up the address of a friend for a Christmas card, or jog my memory about the author of that book I liked, without consulting a screen. But I’m still left wondering how much screen time is okay. After all, I don’t want my kids, mesmerized for hours on end, to be inert blobs. To that end, I’ve been tempted by technology that sets limits for kids automatically, like Amazon’s FreeTime parental controls: Parents program the limits ahead of time, deciding how much total screen time is okay and how much of that time has to be spent on “educational” apps versus “fun” games, for example. After all, it’s a lot easier to just have the damn thing shut off than to argue with my son about how much Jake and the Never Land Pirates is too much.
But Shapiro points out that turning over that responsibility to the machine is abdicating a parental duty that we really need to take on ourselves, in person, in real time. After all, we don’t have automated machines that dole out preset amounts of junk food for our kids. We cook with them and teach them about healthy foods, nutrition and treats as an ongoing process of education.
You might even call that education “nagging.” We need to be actively involved in helping kids set limits; we may even need to “hyper-parent,” as Shapiro calls it. Because kids generally won’t set limits for themselves, we have to instill an inner voice that acts as a kind of alarm bell for screen time (and other things). Shapiro notes that this inner voice is actually us nagging our kids, and that nagging is actually a good thing: For the rest of their lives, they may in fact hear mom’s voice saying, “Have you been outside today? Maybe you should step away from the computer and go for a bike ride.”
In fact, instilling the inner voice that helps kids regulate themselves is one of our primary responsibilities as parents—and nagging is the way we do it. At 41, I still hear my mother asking me how many green vegetables I’ve had today. My husband hears his parents asking if he’s gone to church lately. This is how children learn values. As Shapiro says, “Telling your kids to stop playing video games is less about actually making them stop than it is about creating these voices.”
So when my own internal timer goes off for the iPad use, I’ll be asking my sons if they’ve played outside today, gotten some sunshine lately, or read a book recently. Because it’s not nagging—it’s creating an inner voice that eventually will bloop up in their own heads, automatically. Almost like…an iPad notification.