Screen Time

I am all for free and fair press, I promise

The New York Times did a series recently on screen time. Here are some excerpts from two of the pieces :

NYT’s A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley piece says :

The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

NYT’s Silicon Valley Nannies Are Phone Police for Kids

From Cupertino to San Francisco, a growing consensus has emerged that screen time is bad for kids. It follows that these parents are now asking nannies to keep phones, tablets, computers and TVs off and hidden at all times. Some are even producing no-phone contracts, which guarantee zero unauthorized screen exposure, for their nannies to sign. 

The fear of screens has reached the level of panic in Silicon Valley. Vigilantes now post photos to parenting message boards of possible nannies using cellphones near children. Which is to say, the very people building these glowing hyper-stimulating portals have become increasingly terrified of them. And it has put their nannies in a strange position.

Some parents in Silicon Valley are embracing a more aggressive approach. While their offices are churning out gadgets and apps, the nearby parks are full of phone spies. These hobbyists take it upon themselves to monitor and alert the flock. There are nannies who may be pushing a swing with one hand and texting with the other, or inadvertently exposing a toddler to a TV through a shop window.

Two things about this series do not sit well with me.

First, this seem to be yet another installment of the trend “Silicon Valley does XYZ after noticing a few people who actually do what is being said in the piece” pieces. I am sure everyone in tech is seeking a carnivore diet to get an edge! I am also sure that Amazon tech bros will ruin the dating scene in NYC. We seem to be hitting a new level of stupid with this line of “reporting”.

Second, when a mainstream outlet consistently paints a very complex, multi-variate topic in negative light, a critical reader has to wonder if the goal is to inform the readers and make a holistic case or push an agenda.

Here’s what Anya Kamenetz, a correspondent for National Public Radio, wrote in a piece titled What the Times got wrong about kids and phones :

I cover education and tech for NPR, and I’m the author of the 2018 book The Art of Screen Time, which summarizes the current state of the evidence on families’ approaches to digital media and the effects it has on kids. So dnaturally, I had feelings about the trio of stories that ran this weekend in The New York Times’s Style section about how (mostly white, mostly wealthy) parents in Silicon Valley are supposedly attempting to keep their kids from using the very devices that their industry created.

But as juicy as the setup of these pieces was, I see them as howling missed opportunities. They were lacking relevant research, they drew misleading conclusions, and some of the anecdotal evidence they cited contradicted the central hooks of the stories.

Clearly, this is a topic ripe for scrutiny. According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on children’s interactions with media and technology, kids under the age of eight average two hours and 19 minutes a day on some form of digital media, which is similar to TV habits going back decades for this age group. Mobile devices have changed the accessibility and public visibility of digital media use, however, placing parenting choices under more public scrutiny than ever before, in a time when middle-class parents seem freighted with extreme anxiety already.

There are reams of research on the effects of media consumption. It’s a complex, interdisciplinary, and highly contested field. Most studies are correlational and most effect sizes are quite small. The overall thrust, though, is that exposure to digital media has both positive benefits and dangerous drawbacks. A small percentage of kids are perhaps more vulnerable than others to problematic relationships with devices. And context, content, and the type of interaction may matter as much as time spent on devices.

In Paul’s words, the stories put forth the idea that “the least tech” is the best tech, and that we should all parent more like Steve Jobs. But in fact, strict approaches aimed only at limiting screen time aren’t the most effective. You have to be a role model and engage alongside your kids, a notion that the Times stories largely skirted. As Mimi Ito, a foundational scholar of teens’ online lives, tells me, “With anxiety stoked by fear-inducing media stories, and shamed by their peers, parents grasp for simple authoritarian solutions often against their kids’ interests. But when parents take the time to appreciate and connect with their kids’ digital interests, it can be a site of connection and shared joy”—and a way to mentor kids to discover their own creativity

I am not informed enough to determine whether screen time is a net negative. But, I am informed enough to know it isn’t obviously a net negative as NYT tries to portray. It isn’t like screen time is a novel concept engineered by modern Silicon Valley. It also isnt like all screen time is equal and has similar effects on all kids in the same age group. It seems like their attempt is more of a hit piece to drive a narrative disguised as an attempt to educate the readers about screen time. Having a few quotes from a few outspoken people and framing a clean narrative is the definition of an anectodal story which we must know isn’t a good way of reporting on trends and research.

It is frustrating how critics have now reduced “tech” to things they don’t like about big tech (mostly facebook, twitter and google). But, that’s a topic for another day.