For the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring digital asceticism, the role of technology in our lives and how to maintain our humanity in an increasingly technological world.
These days, when I get together with friends who are also parents, the conversation eventually turns to a repeated theme: how to handle screens and technology use with our kids. It feels like every parent I know is wrestling with this. I am, too.
In 2018, Krista Boan and Tracy Foster co-founded Screen Sanity, a nonprofit to help parents, grandparents and other caregivers navigate these concerns. Screen Sanity offers tips, tools and trainings to “help families raise happy, healthy kids in an increasingly digital world.” I wanted to speak with Boan about the practical things caregivers need to keep in mind as we think through technology use in our homes. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tish Harrison Warren: Your organization sometimes uses the term “screen side effects.” What does that mean?
Krista Boan: We hear from families that technology is the No. 1 battleground in their homes. Qustodio, a leader in online safety, recently released its annual report and found that 70 percent of parents assert that screens and technology are now a distraction from family time and device use causes weekly or daily arguments in nearly 50 percent of households. A big new study from Cambridge University, in which researchers looked at 84,000 people of all ages, found that social media use was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13. Compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s licenses or play youth sports.
What are you hearing from parents about the struggles over screen use in their homes?
Our organizational story and our work with parents is really birthed in grief. So much grief that parents are carrying seems to be correlated with increased screen use.
In 2021, 57 percent of American high-school girls reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Nearly 30 percent seriously considered attempting suicide — an increase from 19 percent a decade ago.
Our organization hosts parent programming where we invite small, local communities to come into a room, and we share information and they respond through conversation. A lot of the time they’re coming from a place of either loss — they’ve seen the light go out in their kids’ eyes after having introduced them to the digital world without giving them a plan or boundaries to help them navigate it — or these parents might be experiencing fear about things they’ve heard from friends.
The truth is, we’re the first generation of parents to have to face these concerns. There is no wisdom being handed down through the ages. We are the wisdom makers.
You were creating resources and launching this new organization, and then Covid hit and schools went online. Kids were on screens all day long. What effects did you see on families? And how do we find new digital norms post-Covid? How do we move on from the habits we’ve created?
Nobody’s going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle. Our lives are forever going to be intertwined with this digital reality. But the pandemic really helped clarify which types of things were healthy and which were harmful. We talk with families about the idea that not all screen time is created equal. Yes, the amount of screen time matters. But in general, we want to help our kids to understand how to create and connect in the online world more than they consume. Working on your computer doing creative things or connecting with other people actually stimulates the part of your brain that can enhance your humanity.
My growing concern is that even the best types of screen use displace the actual material world around us. Minutes or hours on screens are minutes or hours kids (and adults) are not talking to people around them, going on walks, learning an instrument, staring into space or interacting with the material world.
I’ve heard Jonathan Haidt call screens “experience blockers” — putting a screen in your kid’s hand prohibits them from experiencing the world, whether it’s relationships or enjoying creation or whatever. Every time we choose convenience, there’s a cost. Every time you push your toddler through Target and they start having a tantrum, it’s so tempting to want to hand them a screen. And for sure, there are times that you’ve got to just get through Target. That’s the gift of technology. Sometimes you can make that exchange. But every time you do make that exchange, you have to consider that there’s a cost.
By allowing them to go through the experience of having a meltdown and not getting what they want, you are actually building a muscle of delayed gratification, of having these coping mechanisms that, long term, are the things that you want them to have as teenagers, when they experience something that’s hard or disappointing or embarrassing or they don’t get what they want. We want them to have those skills as little ones to be able to draw from so that they can know that they don’t have to react quickly to something that’s painful.
Another example for parents of little ones is children’s boredom. It can be excruciating to deal with as a parent. And it is so tempting to just pacify them. Boredom is the doorway to deep creativity. If they can get through the conflict they’re experiencing internally, they will go into deep play. Deep play helps us keep calm and be recentered.
How can we help kids with the addictive effects of technology use?
One of the first steps we have to take is helping them understand who is behind all of the technology that they use, why they’re feeling pulled to keep checking their phones. We have to teach them that there is somebody behind the design whose goal is to make money off us and who doesn’t have our best interests at heart. This generation gets slapped on the hand a lot for their digital engagement without any kind of grace or truth that says, “This was built so that you would be addicted.”
Screen Sanity uses the acronym START. Can you briefly explain it to me?
START represents some starting points aimed at parents for achieving digital health.
“S” stands for “Start with yourself,” which is the idea that before we can authentically engage with our kids, we need to think about what we’re modeling for them in the digital world. We recommend removing addictive apps from your home screen or wearing a smartwatch to filter out notifications. Narrate for your kids what you’re doing on your phone. If they see you on your phone, they might assume that you’re just doomscrolling. But if you say, “Hey, I’m actually checking on Grandma to see if she needs me to pick up that prescription,” then kids can start developing an internal framework of understanding, like, “Oh, that’s what healthy technology looks like.”
“T" is for “Tables and bedtimes.” Just like we encourage our children to choose healthy foods over sugary treats, we want our kids to get in the healthy habit of being able to go device free. So we want to build those muscles by giving them consistent, predictable times and places that your family will practice unplugging.
Research shows that family dinners can have remarkable benefits. And if we can put those phones away, that will help provide space for us to do the connecting that we really need. The second thing is bedtimes. Eighty percent of teens check their phones when they are supposed to be sleeping. Even if they’re doing something innocent, like watching cat videos, this is tough on them, because sleep is a critical factor of mental and physical health.
“A” is for “accountability.” Today’s kids play on the internet, where there is nobody supervising what’s going on. And there are so many opportunities for bullies at best and predators at worst. And unlike the school playground, these bullies can’t be left behind. They have access to our kids 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It’s worth keeping track of where your child has been in the digital world. Apply a filter to your home Wi-Fi. When your kids are ready to start taking their devices with them, like in their pocket outside of your home Wi-Fi boundary, make sure that you get a filter installed on your child’s phone.
“R” is “Ride, practice, drive.” This is probably our hallmark teaching. Just like you won’t hand your kids keys to a car when they turn 16 without any training, these devices should be treated in the same way: They have the power to break us.
When you began learning to drive a car, you really began in the back seat, watching what your parents did. In that same way, your kids are watching you and how you interact with your device. But then, when it’s time for them to slip into the driver’s seat, you step into the passenger seat and you go through a learner’s permit season. And through that process you’re heading toward device independence, but you’re going to log a lot of hours in that seat, gradually giving them a little bit more freedom as they demonstrate responsibility. And it is long and it is hard. But you are pointing out all kinds of hazards that you’re seeing when they open up their first Instagram account or whenever they start group texting or whatever it is.
“T” is “Time well spent.” And this comes from Tristan Harris at the Center for Human Technology. He asks: “At the end of your life, all you have is your time and your attention. When you look back, what will you say was time well spent?” We want to help families think more about the quality of interactions online.
One reason we let our children go to screens is parental exhaustion. I see this with my kids. I get tired and give them screens so I can have a break.
Give yourself grace. Today’s parents are exhausted from trying to juggle so many things, and sometimes a little screen time can be a lifesaver. This isn’t about perfect parenting — it’s about finding ways to use screens to support the things that matter most to you. So try to release the pressure to find a magical number of screen time minutes and instead start to think of childhood as an opportunity to grow the muscles and habits they will need to have healthy tech use for the rest of their lives. When your kids’ screen time feels out of sync, don’t feel like you need to throw all of your screens in a lake. Give yourself as many do-overs as you need. Ultimately, little steps in the right direction really add up. Even small steps are big steps when it comes to digital health.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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