Parenting in the Digital Age: A Review of The Art of Screen Time

Like many parents, I struggle to strike a screen life balance. For better or worse, the portability of our digital life has disintegrated many of the boundaries that once cleanly separated the traditional social spheres. Today, we can work in our living rooms, and play at the office. We can connect with our geographically distant relatives, and ignore our geographically immediate family. A child’s phone is a distraction at school, but a learning tool at home. Teens socialize alone in their bedrooms, and feel isolated in a crowd. And what is abundantly clear, is that we’re spending a lot of time engrossed by our screens.

As parents, we’re in uncharted territory. The traditional chestnuts of child-rearing wisdom offer little direction, news and social media deliver conflicting advice, and expert recommendations are at odds with our lived reality. Is it OK for a 7-year-old to binge on Power Rangers on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Am I a terrible father for ignoring the tugs at my sleeve while I answer work emails? Will my toddler be permanently damaged because I let her use an iPad before she was two? Should I ban my tween from social media? So many questions, so much worry, so much guilt.

Fortunately, I found guidance and some consolation in Anya Kamenetz’s The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life. Kamenetz, a veteran education writer and concerned parent, launches her book by asking: “How worried should we really be about kids and tech?” A big and complex question to be sure, but her highly readable account does a good job of untangling a complicated line of inquiry.

Kamenetz is a media savvy mom, but her tone is honest and exploratory rather than preachy or prescriptive. She never pretends to have all the answers, and her research is grounded in her personal struggle as a parent left to navigate the turbulent confluence of social, economic, and technological forces faced by so many families today. The central concern of The Art of Screen Time are the challenges digital media pose to family dynamics, but it also devotes a sizable parcel of real estate to examining technology in schools, and the emerging postscreen world of virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of things (IoT).

Let’s face it: whether we like it or not, screens are now woven into the fabric of our lives and are not going away anytime soon, so we may as well learn to make the best of them. Kudos to the stoic holdouts who swim against the powerful currents of modern life, but that simply isn’t the reality for most families. Kamenetz encapsulates this ethos when she writes that “My takeaway from all this is that raising kids away from all screen media is impractical, if not impossible. And there’s no way to have perfect foresight about the impact of our choices. The best we can do as parents right now is share information, watch for danger signs, and rely on enduring values.” Even more: she believes that the judicious use of digital devices can actually do much good.

The early chapters of the book conduct a thorough and provocative review of research on digital media effects based on dozens of interviews with leading scholars, psychologists and scientists. It quickly becomes clear that many alarmist headlines and definitive pediatric recommendations are underpinned by some pretty patchy evidence. Studying kids on screens is a tricky business, largely hampered by the basic fact that we don’t want to harm children by testing them for harmful effects. What we’re left with are scattered findings that tend to be correlational rather than causal. In other words, much of the research that delves into media effects on children falls more on the side of speculation than proof.

Far from a screen time evangelist, Kamenetz is credible for her balanced approach. The potential hazards of digital media are never denied or minimized. On the contrary, the author validates many findings such as the negative effects of screens on sleep, obesity, aggression, and distracted driving. She forwards diverse views, lends her insights, and ultimately invites the reader to arrive at their own conclusions.

Kamenetz favors a philosophy of management and setting limits over outright prohibition. Parents are encouraged to maintain fluid channels of communication rather than turn to overly punitive or overbearing measures. A persistent message throughout the book is the importance of shared media – a fundamental principle of media literacy. When possible, parents should try to consume and dialogue about media with their kids. This allows us to better understand and frame our children’s media interactions, and it also helps kids learn to articulate and think critically about their media habitat. As one of the psychologists interviewed put it: “If you’re going to optimize learning, there’s no question that the best way to optimize is the be with your kid.”

The problem, of course, is time. Busy parents and working families don’t always have the luxury of sitting with their kids and patiently watching an episode of Doc McStuffins. This especially applies to low income and single parent families who sometimes juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. What this, and many other issues addressed in the book, suggests is that the structure of our society may be a bigger culprit than the screens themselves.

It’s also important to remember that not all screen time is created equal. These luminescent windows connect kids to faraway family, provide support groups for new mothers, allow us to share family videos and pictures, teach us about the world, and let kids rehearse for a technological reality that will only become a bigger part of their lives in the years to come. It’s crucial for young people to leverage the benefits, and to become versed in protocols and safe practices early on to ensure a safer online life. Rather than enter the social media world cold and unprepared in their early teens, perhaps practicing with the family first will save them considerable trouble down the road.

The widespread compulsions of screen use have drawn comparisons to the ills of tobacco, but Kamenetz turns to food as a more suitable metaphor. Good food and a healthy diet improves our quality of life, while overindulging in junkier variants can lead to some well-documented problems. She also contends that people have diverse dispositions, lifestyles, and needs, and thus respond differently to screen stimulus, so there’s no single magic bullet recipe for ideal consumption. Instead, the book provides a balanced, birds-eye view of what we know, what we don’t know, and some compelling personal and real family experiences. The reader is oriented with a fairly detailed map and some useful pointers, but must ultimately plot a course that makes the most sense for them.

The Art of Screen Time will not completely absolve you of screen-related guilts and worries, but you will be much better informed to make decisions that are a good fit for you and your family which, at this point in the real world of near ubiquitous devices, is the most that we can ask for.

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