Cheat Sheet: How To Ace Zoom School

Listen to this episode

S1: Would you say you like school right now? No, why not? Um, it’s boring and it’s hard to socialize with and zoom. Do you like sometimes do other things on your computer besides class? Hmm. No idea. Yeah. I like what Minecraft you do. Minecraft is what we do in class sometimes.

S2: And you’re listening to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg and those were my two sons. And I thought I would check in with them about their online education, because this is our first episode in a three part back to school series called Cheat Sheet. And considering that I just learned my son plays Minecraft when he’s supposed to be doing homework, it’s probably a good thing we’re doing the series right now. We have gotten so many emails from parents who are struggling to keep their kids on track. Yes. And we’re in for the long haul.

S3: And now it feels like there’s probably a right way to do it with a capital R and I don’t know what it is. Whereas before it was like, well, you know, whatever, we’re all doing the best we can.

S2: This is Ana from Texas. She just got word that her two kids like mine, will be in virtual school this year. I think I anticipated that this was going to happen, but the reality of getting the word from school was pretty demoralizing.

S4: Yeah, and it’s kind of like this like body blow, right? It’s like it’s like you were like, oh, well, finally, the kids are going to get to go back to school and then and then. No, they’re just going to be at home on their screens.

S1: Exactly. I just got a fifth grader named Judah and a third grader named Elena. And now that she knows that her kids are going to be learning online, this is the thing she wonders about the most.

S3: Is all screentime created equal, where if I have one who’s coding for three hours and on YouTube for two, are the three hours of coding actually, quote, better than the two hours of, you know, flipping around on YouTube?

S4: Well, let me ask, before quarantine started, what would you say your kids relationship was like with their screens?

S3: So we always had a rule that they could have an hour, a day of screen time. It wouldn’t include, for example, if we had family movie night or if they were going to, you know, face time with their grandparents or something like that. So with Juda in particular, he’s very much into online video games, especially roblox roblox.

S1: For those of you who don’t spend all of your time talking to fifth graders is like Minecraft. It’s a it’s a video game where you build your own world.

S3: He has his own store that like a clothing store. He works for an airline on road blocks. I mean I say this and it sounds hilarious because I don’t even know what quite that means. But he’s really into it. And he likes the he has taken coding classes to know how to code on roadblocks. Alan, on the other hand, spends her time more on, you know, YouTube looking at videos of things that she finds interesting. Yesterday, she said, Mom, you know, you shampoo your hair every day. I think you’re losing it’s natural oil like. Oh, you do? Well, apparently, she has learned on YouTube that if you do that every day, you will lose its natural oil.

S4: And now that the pandemic is here, like I imagine when they started doing virtual school and distance learning, they must have been spending more time on screens, right?

S3: Absolutely. I mean, hours and hours. And I could really tell that especially Juda was like bouncing off the walls, like I could tell a difference in his behavior.

S5: The situation we’re in right now, sometimes it feels impossible. And I should note, this is somewhat of a privileged conversation, right? Not everyone has Internet access or a laptop for school, but for the parents who do, how do we help our kids survive yet another semester of school? How much screen time is too much? Luckily, our expert this week has some answers and she has a way of reframing how we think about technology and kids that might make you feel more at ease. So stay glued to whatever device you are listening to because we’ll be right back with.

S1: As much as it feels like a brave new world right now, people have been worrying about kids and technology for years. Back in 1969, for instance, this bold new experiment in children’s education first appeared on TV screens all over the country.

S6: One of the things Sesame Street was founded to do was to close the gap between kids who got access to quality preschool or any preschool, which in the 60s and 70s was fewer kids. And it’s really interesting to see remote learning go through some of these same early questions because people worried about Sesame Street and said it’s going to make kids into zombies. Oh, interesting. So and also that it’s too it’s too frenetic and it’s going to make kids feel like they’re on an acid trip. Remember, again, this is 70s. Everyone’s using these very 70s references.

S1: This is Devourer Hitner. She spent her career researching media and talking with families and schools about technology. She’s the author of the book screen is Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in their digital world and is the mom of an 11 year old son herself. She knows how stressed parents can get about screen time.

S6: I love your question about is all screen time created equal? Because 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, the way we use tech. Now, if you use an app to pull a recipe to cook dinner. Have you used up your screen time? Does that mean you can’t watch on Netflix later with your kids or that you can’t read a book online or check your email? Like that’s not a very helpful way to think about screens.

S4: I know. What do you think about that? Like, do you think that they’re like these different categories in your head that you feel comfortable with about different classes? Really? Yeah. How so?

S7: Absolutely. Well, I mean, I think the the dirty secret is that the reason I think it’s fine that to not count movie night is because I want to have a movie night because it’s fine with us to have a movie night. Right. I mean, I just play all these games and in my head, frankly, to justify, like, why this is OK and why that’s not OK. But I’d like to get away from, like, I feel guilty about it because I don’t even know why I feel guilty about it, except everyone sort of tells me I should.

S6: Well, there has been a lot of moral shaming about parents and parents are almost afraid to talk about it with other parents because they don’t want to be judged. Yeah. And so it leaves us with a lot of misinformation about what other folks might be doing. And so the question of like, oh, wait, you’re letting your kid do that? Does that mean I have to?

S4: So, Ana, do you talk to other parents about screen time? Like what are those conversations like?

S7: Well, it’s funny you ask, because probably about 18 months ago I did send an email to a number of other parents whom I really respect and ask them like that, have kids about my same age and ask them, what’s your philosophy? And I’ll tell you, after about three responses I wished I hadn’t asked, of course, one said, you know, the boys were so obsessed with it that I just shut down any technology during the week and they only get it on the weekend.

S4: And how did that make you feel when someone was like, oh, we just decided to get rid of the screens and now we all, you know, sit around and we discuss politics?

S7: Well, I mean, I don’t want to say that I question the veracity of my friend because I couldn’t imagine that they were very frustrated. But it’s like, are we even being honest with each other?

S6: I mean, I do a lot of school talks and a lot of people will get up in assemblies and say, well, you just say it’s wrong to get fifth graders and iPhone and or will you just say, you know, that nobody at this age should be playing on a public server because what people want is a clear and understandable standard that they can kind of hold their neighbors to. And I do understand that desire because we grew up with somewhat universal. There may not have been an exact time after which you weren’t supposed to call somebody when we were kids, but we all had a time that we weren’t supposed to call somebody. Maybe in your house. It was nine thirty in my house. That might have been ten o’clock. And that that lack of universality is really frustrating to parents. But we all have to make the best decisions for our own families.

S5: So here’s our first rule. You don’t have to feel guilty right now, you’re doing just fine. It’s the middle of a pandemic and our kids have to be on screens. That’s how they’re going to school. And just because it’s uncomfortable for us, because it feels so new and uncertain, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rotting their brains watching tick tock or Instagram. That’s probably not any worse for our kids than watching the team and playing hours of Nintendo was for us. What matters much more than your kids number of hours on a screen is what kind of a parent you are when they’re off the computer.

S6: I want to I want to ask you if you held up a lens to your son, if you looked at another interest, like, say, he was really into playing chess or really into swimming, how much would you let him do that versus something like being really into ROBLOX?

S7: Probably all the time. I mean, if he was into chess, would there be any guilt?

S6: But it’d be interesting to see some of his interests, especially in the sort of creative side of tech and programming and in building things. And it sounds like he’s also a little entrepreneurial. 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? Because, I mean, I think if you have a kid who’s really good at roadblocks, why wouldn’t you kind of casually brag on that in the same way you might brag about your swimmer kid or your chess kid like he’s making roebuck’s? It’s awesome.

S7: Mm hmm. It’s a really good. Yeah. I mean, I think my reaction is because there’s the reason I don’t brag on it or anything is because I’m really, truly in my heart. Not sure that it is a great way for a kid to be spending his time. Yes. If we if we took all of the work that he’s doing or playing in roadblocks and moved it into the real world, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if somehow he learned how to design shirts and start a clothing store and market them and buy ads and everything. It sounds like amazing. But somehow because he’s doing it all on a screen, it seems questionable.

S6: I just want to push on that a little bit because there are people whose job is to sit in front of a screen all day and design stuff, and that is their real world.

S7: I know. And that is actually the one thing out of all of this that’s always a little bit in the back of my mind is why would I do something that he seems interested in if it actually it someday could be a job? I mean, he we actually, I have to say, took him to roadblocks headquarters. Roebuck’s actually has tours for kids. And we took him there and he was like so into it. And I was thinking, oh, he could be here. ROBLOX developer. So, you know. Yeah.

S6: Say your kid was watching cooking shows. I would say like well then can they actually cook something because that’d be a really useful skill right now. Like is there some way that he can start to pull some of these skills, you know, even just teaching him some more basics about how money works and how scaling things work and letting him do some math on, you know, how these ROBLOX stores are working and how, you know, how that could work or if he’s more into the design side, what he like to noodle around in other design programs or maybe learn some drafting, like are there ways to extend this, including maybe some pen on paper ways?

S5: Here’s our next rule. There are things you can do to bring your kids screen life into real life or vice versa. We live in a digital world, though, right? And so it’s actually good for them to figure out how to do things online and to learn how to mix the virtual in the real life. So help them make those connections so that they have to mow the lawn and Minecraft as well as the real lawn outside your house. And we’ll talk about exactly how to do that after this quick break, which, incidentally, is perfectly timed for you to check your email. If you like this episode, allow me to suggest another one about how to break your own phone addiction. It’s called How to put down Your Phone, and it’s full of tips from digital minimalist Cal Newport and New Yorker writer Gia Tarantino. You can find that in all of our episodes by subscribing for free to our podcast feed.

S1: We’re back with our listener on a and our expert, Dvora Hitner, and one of the big issues is our kids are spending more time online because the virtual classes is helping them learn how to log off, which, of course, is hard for all of us.

S6: 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. It’s why it’s hard to walk away from YouTube. There’s no end in queues.

S4: And that’s a really interesting way of thinking about it, because I think you’re right, when I think about my kids and screens, it’s that I’m scared of them getting stuck on the screens and forgetting all the other things that they can do to pick up a book or to go, you know, wrestle with each other or to go run around outside.

S6: Right. Because the other thing about the broadcast schedule for us in the 70s or 80s or 90s is it went off after, you know, the show you wanted went off. You couldn’t binge the whole season, evidently just go to YouTube and find the next season or it’s three o’clock in the afternoon.

S1: And all there are soap operas are like The Price is right and those are boring. So I might as well be played because what else am I going to do exactly?

S6: So I think those external limits were helpful for our parents. And that’s where I do think we want to give other interests a chance. Like one thing you could do is to experiment with taking some screen breaks and shut things down. And I started to talk with my own 11 year old about. Actually, the way these things are designed to keep us there and how they have no end in chaos, because the thing about, you know, eight and 10 and 12 and 15 year olds is they love to be smarter than the scientists. They love to be smarter than the app. And 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.

S4: Let me ask you a question. Do you have any screentime rules for yourself? I’m embarrassed to admit I have none. I don’t either.

S7: Well, I mean, I just if I had to say that I actually need my devices to do my job and my job helps us provide for our family. So I do look at it as sort of a different function. But I am on my phone all the time on email because of my work.

S6: What about an experiment or a challenge instead of a rule? Say, Wow, I’ve noticed that, you know, during this pandemic time, our apartment has been feeling small and I find that I’m on Zillow a lot scanning for other apartments. So I’m going to try to take a two week break from Zillow because I’m wasting a lot of time there and really saying that to my rising middle schooler and 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 of that? Another thing that I think about is one of the tricky things with reading during this pandemic has been that library trips and trips to the comic store were really inspiring for our family, for our son, who loves reading, but needs that feeling of choice. And we were kind of missing all of that, right? I mean, before that, when the pandemic hit, the first thing I did is everybody was hoarding toilet paper. And I did go to the library and I did I when I got home. But it wasn’t as exciting. Like having 80 books in the house was almost too many choices. So what I actually did is I put some of them in another place and then I would bring them in one at a time, which is kind of like a trick you would do with little kids to get them interested in their toys again, like take them away for a week and bring them back. But it kind of it approximated a little bit of that choice feeling of just things, things that help kids feel empowered and autonomous, especially right now when they’ve lost so many choices in their lives, I think are really helpful.

S4: And I love that idea of posing. This is a challenge. Like if you were to sit down with your son and you were to have a conversation where you both have a challenge around screens for a week. What would it be for you and you think for him?

S3: Well, I think for me it would be where I can go down a rabbit hole right now is there’s this part of me that would like spend time on websites looking at clothes that I don’t buy because really, truly, I don’t need them. So that could be my part of the bargain. You know, for his part of the bargain, sometimes when he’s gaming, he he will switch from gaming himself to watching other people games.

S5: Do you guys know there’s like all these. Oh, yeah. It makes me crazy.

S3: I know. Is that something that would be fair game to say? Like, hey, you know, totally great that you are coding and working on your store, but like for a week I won’t look at department store websites and you will not like, watch some random YouTube or play roblox.

S6: Yeah, I think it could be, but I think it might go even better if you ask him 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 in this kind of radical parenting, ask him what he finds his least favorite tech habit of yours is like. If you if you’re going to choose your least favorite habit of his, maybe he gets to choose yours. Oh, that’s interesting. Which might be like if you ever scroll your phone, like when you’re talking to him or whatever it might be like. And I’ve done all those things. So this is not I’m not pointing the finger, but or you can each choose your own.

S1: Here’s our next idea. Design some experiments to limit not only your kids screen time, but also your screen time. And rather than making this about strict outer limits, especially for kids who are stuck at home, make it a game, something where they have agents and ask them what online habits for our whole family do you wish we could change?

S6: Well, that’s the huge upside of not stigmatizing screen screens and being in more conversation with our kids about what they’re doing. We absolutely can’t log minute for a minute, and especially during remote school. And, you know, we used to most of us I certainly was a big fan of outsourcing a bunch of my kids day to the state, you know, and other things. But that that’s not happening right now. And so if they’re sitting all day on a Chromebook or an iPad and then they’re going to have some recreational screen time on their own device or your device, there’s there’s a whole bunch of things that can go wrong. So so pornography and then violence as a both separate and enmeshed category is horrifying and gives them really miss misguided and potentially dangerous ideas about consent and what sex looks like that we would never want. 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 nine. Well, 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 Floyds murder. Right. And that’s 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.

S4: That makes a lot of sense. And let me ask something on that, which is that the other thing that technology does is it gives us the ability to monitor our kids that our parents didn’t have for us. Right. Like, you know, I can go on to my kids computers and I can see what they actually looked at all day long. And in part of me says, like, oh, that’s that’s what I had to do as a dad. Right. But then, of course, there’s another part of my brain that says, no, this is terrible, that’s spying on my children. Like, this is an awful thing to do tomorrow. How do you think about that?

S6: Well, my mantra on this is mentoring over monitoring. So always using a conversation and observation of our kids as opposed to trying to outsource it to tech, because the challenge with especially if you go to that next level, not just using browser history, but like the net nanny and some of the software parents can use to to track their kids, that gets into some really tricky territory. And really it can undermine the relationship between parents and kids. That said, if you are tracking their history, if you are doing anything like that, I would do it openly and disclose that you’re doing it.

S5: Here’s our next rule. Don’t spy on your kids even if you’re like me and you really want to. The key is to get into this pattern where you’re talking to them, where they feel like they can talk to you about what they’re seeing online so that you don’t have to monitor them because they’re learning how to make good choices. And having those kinds of conversations is really important, particularly now, because the Internet is great at introducing kids to new information and ideas, but terrible at putting it in perspective, which is where parents come in.

S6: The voter herself knows how important these conversations are, in part because of this tragic thing that happened to her when she was 17 and a college student in Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts, one of our classmates turned 18 and went into town and bought a gun. And his plan was to kill all of us with a machine gun that had a lot of rounds. And he killed a professor and a student, a classmate of mine, friend, and wounded some other people, a few of whom are still living with significant disability and pain from their injuries, you know, decades later. And his gun jammed and he tried to kill himself before the police came and he didn’t. And he’s in prison. Dvora says because of this experience, she’s tried to talk to her own son about things like video games, where the goal is to shoot other people, and we’ve talked about why they are traumatic to me and that we can talk about that and that I can separate my own trauma from the research that says playing those games isn’t going to make someone who isn’t violent, who isn’t feeling disengaged from society suddenly turn into a murderer. Right. And that intellectually I can know that. But that doesn’t mean I want this sounds in my home. Like when I hear gunshots, I hit the floor.

S4: Has that influenced how you think about technology or helping people come together at all?

S6: In many ways, it just makes me admire the kids in Chicago or in 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 in 1992, which was before people even used the term school shooting because it was five years before Columbine, we didn’t have that. We just went home. And if we were lucky, our parents send 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.

S8: And this is kind of the point, says Devorah.

S9: It’s really easy to focus on all the bad that kids might learn about online or the harm of being on too many screens. But there’s also so much good they can find.

S6: Think of the trans kid who doesn’t and their own lives and instead finds a community on the Internet. Think of all of the people who have been saved by their online community in some way. Think of the people who’ve met their partners on a dating app who would otherwise be alone.

S9: This is our final rule. Help your kids learn how technology can foster community or since it’s more likely that they’ve already figured that out on their own. Help them understand how to use and contribute to those communities. It’s been six months now that most of us have been apart. We’re all tired of our screens before our kids, the zoom classes or those game sessions with friends. That’s often the only way they can talk to their friends. And that socialization, that feeling of normalcy, that is much more important than worrying about them becoming addicted to the Internet, to Devor.

S7: Actually, I and hearing you and kind of thinking through this, I actually feel like I need to do a bit of a technology reset with my kids where we move from it being an adversarial thing that we sort of push and pull on day in and day out to me being much more open to thinking of the positives. And I’m wondering if you can help me think through how to do that reset.

S6: Yeah. And I think I can try some experiments and really talk with Juda about also, like you’re getting older, you’re 10. You’re going to be also kind of responsible for more of your own learning this upcoming year with remote school. And this is an opportunity to rethink our relationship with the tools we use and think about what are the things you’re most excited about? What are the things you’d like to learn? Is there something in ROBLOX you want to get better at? Is there a kind of programming language you might like to learn this year? And is there some non tech thing that you also want to do to like balance out like either an exercise thing or a musical instrument or some other thing that maybe you also want to keep around, keep the art supplies out, keep the guitar or the drums on the wall, because if the screen is the only thing that’s out and everything else is put away, you do kind of forget like, oh, I could build with Legos right now or I could play my guitar right now. So try to keep those things kind of visible as a little reminder that there is an alternative. Yeah, that all makes a lot of sense.

S4: Do you feel like this conversation has helped you?

S10: Very much so. I really need to think if these were activities that my kids were involved in, in the, you know, bricks and mortar world are the real world, how would I view it and realize that a lot of my concerns are more like the social pressure on me as a parent to think that there’s something bad about screens rather than really examining what my kids are doing on the screens and how it’s impacting them.

S11: And as an aside, after we did this interview, I had a conversation with my kids to talk about their technology use. And we came up with a system in which they get to decide what kinds of limits they should have each day, which, to be totally honest with you, are not the same limits I would have chosen.

S8: But once the kids explain them to me, they made sense. And so far it’s been working, at least I think OK. The other thing the experts said is that you’re going to use computers your whole life. And so it’s important for you guys to learn how to use computers. Do you do you guys have any thoughts on that?

S12: I’m pretty good at using computer like the other day I used. OK, so there’s this great browser called Shodan and you can hack vulnerable IP addresses and get onto webcams and it’s awesome. I got into a webcam in a house in New Jersey and it was pretty cool. Like a lady was walking around and she was like cleaning. And I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. And it’s legal. It’s definitely not legal. That is not in that area. No, but I’m pretty sure. Wait, so you’re like James Bond? Yeah, I’m exactly like James Bond and every little. Let’s not do that.

S11: Let’s try something else. All righty, then. I should let you know, after we recorded this, I followed up and my son is not actually spying on other people’s webcams. He is, however, getting really, really good at freaking out his parents. Speaking of, boys in the Internet are back to school series Cheat Sheet continues next week where we’ll look at the experience of a teenage athlete who’s chatting online with girls and having trouble understanding the messages he’s getting from them.

S8: So his parents asked us to help. It’s called How to Raise a Sensitive Jock. And it’s next week. Thank you to Ana for sharing her story with us and to our Hitner. For all of her fantastic advice. You should make sure to look for her book, screen wise, helping kids thrive and survive in their digital world.

S11: Do you have a question about going back to school or any other problem that needs solving? If so, you should send us a note at how to add slate dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. How TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is a production assistant and Mayor Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hanesbrands. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of audio special. Thanks to Bill Carey, Maggie Taylor, Katie Raeford, Amanda Godman and Son Park. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening.