Devorah Heitner is a rare breed these days—a tech optimist. The author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, Devorah has spent her life studying digital media and talking with schools, parents, and kids about how technology affects their daily lives. As the mom of an 11-year-old herself, she knows just how much parents worry about screen time damaging their kids. But her research has led her to believe that even hours spent on Minecraft is not necessarily a bad thing for your child. In this episode of How To!, Devorah reveals how you can help your kids cultivate a positive relationship with technology, especially as the pandemic has recast screens as teacher, babysitter, and parent. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: I think a lot of parents, myself included, want to know how bad screens are for our kids. But we know we can’t avoid screens entirely, so let me ask you this instead—is all screen time created equal?
Devorah Heitner: I love this question. I’ve been trying to get people to move past the term screen time because it doesn’t really describe the way we all use screens now. If you use an app to pull up a recipe to cook dinner, have you used up your screen time? Does that mean you can’t watch Netflix later with your kids? That’s not a very helpful way to think about screens. So the question you’re asking about the impact of kids’ use of screens really has to become this qualitative look at what exactly our kids are doing with tech—which is, by the way, a real big pain in the neck as a parent. It’s much easier to just look at are they on a device or are they not on a device? Are they inside playing a board game with me because I’m a good parent and have all the time in the world? Or are they using a screen in which case I have to feel guilty because I’ve been told that too much screen time makes me a bad parent?
There has been a lot of moral shaming of parents. I do a lot of school talks and a lot of people will get up in assemblies and say, “Will you just say it’s wrong to get fifth graders an iPhone?” What people want is a clear and understandable standard. But the lack of universality now is really frustrating to parents. Parents are almost afraid to talk about screen time with other parents because they don’t want to be judged. It leaves us with a lot of misinformation about what other folks might be doing and resentment. This becomes a huge issue during this pandemic because people’s kids are all using these different platforms, but you have to realize, “Just because you’re letting your kid use that doesn’t mean I have to.”
When I was a kid, there were these long periods of boredom in my life, and that boredom is why I started reading. I do worry that even if there is “good” screen time and “bad” screen time, just having screens available means that my boys are going to read less and develop their own interests because that screen can flicker to life and be Roblox or something inherently more interesting than a book.
Say your kid was really into playing chess or really into swimming, how much would you let him do that versus something like being really into playing Roblox on the computer? Probably a lot. But think about the ways that Roblox allows him to have a creative and entrepreneurial side. What are some ways you could encourage him in those areas? And also kind of let him know that you think it’s cool if you do. I mean, if you have a kid who’s really good at Roblox, why wouldn’t you kind of casually brag on that in the same way you might brag about your swimmer kids or your chess kid?
It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the desire for balance, but I want to push on this a little, because there are people whose job is to sit in front of a screen all day and design stuff. That is their real world. So just let yourself think about what your kids are doing on the computer as being useful in the world and find ways they can start to pull on some of the skills they’re learning. Say, your kid was watching cooking shows, I would say, “Well, then can they actually cook something?” When it comes to Roblox, even just teaching him some more basics about how money works and letting him do some math on how these Roblox stores are working. Or if he’s more into the design side, would he like to noodle around in other design programs? What are the ways to extend this, including some pen on paper ways?
That makes a lot of sense, and that’s a really interesting way of thinking about it because when I think about my kids and screens, it’s not so much that I am scared of them watching the screens. It’s that I’m scared of them getting stuck on the screens and forgetting all the other things that they can do.
Tech is so compelling. Some would say addictive, and it’s designed to get its hooks into your brain and not let you go. That’s why we’ve all stayed up and watched another episode of The Americans. That’s why it’s hard to walk away from YouTube. There are no ending cues. One thing you could do is to experiment with taking some screen breaks and shut things down. I started to talk with my own 11-year-old about the way technology is designed to keep us there, because kids love to be smarter than the scientists. So if they start to think, “Well, this is a really cool thing, but I’m also in control and I’m in charge of how I spend my time,” that’s a really helpful frame for them.
Another challenge could be to say to your kid, “Wow, I’ve noticed that I’m on Zillow a lot scanning for other apartments. So I’m going to try to take a week break from Zillow because I’m wasting a lot of time there.” And then say, “You know, I know you spend a lot of time on Amazon looking at Legos. Do you want to think about, like, both of us just taking a week off?” It might be even better if you ask your kid to pick the thing that you feel like takes him away from the things he’s most motivated. Or even if you want to go a step further into radical parenting, ask him what he finds his least favorite tech habit of yours is—if you’re going to choose your least favorite tech habit of his, maybe he gets to choose yours.
I love that idea of proposing this as a challenge. Another thing I want to ask about is safety. It’s all well and good to say, “Look, we don’t think screens are unhealthy.” But that doesn’t necessarily deal with who or what is at the other end of those screens.
Well, the huge upside of not stigmatizing screens is that we can be in more conversation with our kids about what they’re doing. We absolutely can’t log minute for minute. And especially during remote school, there’s a whole bunch of things that can go wrong. I mean, pornography gives them really misguided and potentially dangerous ideas about consent and what sex looks like. So the more unsupervised tech access your kid has, the more you really have to have a proactive conversation about pornography because the average age of exposure is 9. And then there’s other kinds of stuff like right now, the news cycle is damn scary. Do you want your kids watching a news story about folks dying alone of this virus? Think about all of the kids who’ve now seen George Floyd’s murder. Those are really important conversations. We cannot let our kids just see this stuff and not talk to them or not ask them what they’ve seen or what they know.
My mantra on keeping tabs on what your kids see is mentoring over monitoring. So always use a conversation with and observation of our kids as opposed to trying to outsource it to tech by spying. Tracking your kids—not just using browser history, but like Net Nanny and other software parents can use to track their kids—gets into some really tricky territory. It can really undermine the relationship between parents and kids. That said, if you are tracking their history or anything like that, I would do it openly and disclose that you’re doing it.
I know that something from your past really helped you understand how important—how lifesaving—these open conversations with your kids around safety and what they’re seeing online can be. Could you tell me about that and how it influenced the way you think about technology.
Sure. In 1992, I was a student at Simon’s Rock College in Massachusetts. I was 17. One of our classmates turned 18 and went into town and bought a gun. His plan was to kill all of us with a machine gun that had a lot of rounds. He killed a professor and a student—a classmate of mine and a friend—and wounded some other people, a few of whom are still living with significant disability and pain from their injuries decades later. He tried to kill himself before the police came but his gun jammed and he didn’t. And he’s in prison.
In many ways, my experience just makes me admire the kids in Chicago or Parkland who use the tool of social media to stand up afterwards and talk about what happened and start an activist movement. Whereas all of us who survived the Simon’s Rock shooting—before people even used the term school shooting because it was five years before Columbine—we didn’t have that. We just went home. If we were lucky, our parents sent us to therapy a couple of times to talk about our trauma. And then we kind of all moved on quietly with our lives. We didn’t have social media to stay connected or to be visible. Many of us were just young and isolated and devastated by those murders. And of course, in that time, there was no internet.
Think of all of the people who have been saved by their online community in some way. Think of the trans kid who doesn’t end their own lives and instead finds a community on the internet. Think of the people who’ve met their partners on a dating app who would otherwise be alone. Every tool can be used for ill, as some online spaces do by recruiting young people to violence or white supremacist movements. But I don’t think that means the tool is bad.