What the Times got wrong about kids and phones

November 5, 2018

Anyone who’s spent time digging into a specific beat knows the feeling: You’re never going to be thrilled to see a big package on “your” topic in a major outlet. You’re going to have quibbles, at the very least.

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 naturally, 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.

The pieces—which carried the headlines “A Dark Consensus About Kids And Screens Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley,” “Silicon Valley Nannies are Phone Police For Kids,” and “The Digital Gap Between Rich And Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected”—followed the same narrative put forth by a Times report from 2014, which was headlined “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent” and was one of the most popular Style stories of that year.

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To Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, the top takeaway of the recent stories was that “the people who know the most about tech are the ones who want the least tech for their kids. Think about that.”  

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.

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Do these parents really want “the least tech”? Despite talk of a “consensus,” Nellie Bowles, the writer of all three articles, doesn’t quote a single parent who outright bans digital media. The parent who says “doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little” allows a weekly movie night and unlimited media use when traveling. The parent who compares digital media to “crack cocaine” allows his kids to use it regularly, which is probably not what he would do with crack cocaine. (He also uses software to track his children online.)

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.

And here’s something that could have been especially relevant to these Times stories: there’s existing research on parental attitudes and successful parenting strategies regarding digital media. You can help your kids learn via digital media, experts say, and use it constructively. You can help manage and moderate their use.

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.    

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Maybe the goal of the Times pieces was something more narrow, that is, producing a highly clickable Style section trend package that sampled the mores of overprotective parents in a rich, privileged, and prominent corner of the universe. If so, why paint the issue in such extreme terms (and such dark colors)?

Jordan Cohen, director of communications for the Times, defends the pieces, which remain among the most-read stories on the newspaper’s website. “There are different approaches to telling these kinds of stories, and as you point out, the approach we took here was anecdotal,” he writes in an email. “They are well written and offer our readers a deeply reported look at important issues. In other sections, at other times, we’ve taken a different approach.” (He linked to recent examples including this recent one, in the paper’s Well section; this one, from a few months ago; or this one, on teaching digital-media skills.)

Yet even if taken as an anecdotal romp through the state of parenting, the series is flawed. The hook, for example, is that “the people who are closest to tech” are uniquely alarmed about kids and screens. In fact, most polls, such as this Pew survey, show that a majority of parents are concerned about their kids’ media use. A drumbeat of moral-panic press coverage tends to amplify that anxiety.

Some research does show that parents’ wealth and education are correlated with their limiting of kids’ screen time. The reason is not because affluent and educated parents inherently know better or do better. However, parents with means are the ones who have the most resources to eschew media in favor of activities perceived as being of higher value (like by hiring nannies to occupy their children’s time, a practice one of the stories focused on).

Wealthier and more educated parents like myself, and I suspect many of the readers of this piece, also tend to be more performative and controlled in their our parenting. It’s a form of virtue signaling. Two researchers at the London School of Economics, Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone, interviewed tech-savvy parents in the US and the UK and found they were indeed more likely than others to limit screen time—but, as Blum-Ross commented in a tweet, this was “often as much because they were highly self-reflexive/pressurised parents who liked to quote stories like this (in which the act of limiting media = ‘good parenting’).”

Ito, who focuses on teens’ own accounts of their experience, says moral-panic news coverage actually hurts and divides families. “When the press stokes unfounded anxieties and fears about screens, young people and families pay the price. Not only do kids lose the opportunity to connect with their parents around things they care about, they suffer loss of privacy and access to valued activities, information, and social connection.”

Who are the people who know technology best, and what do they do with their own kids? For my book I interviewed dozens of experts who specifically research the effects of digital media on young minds. I asked those of them who were parents what they did with their own children. None used rhetoric demonizing technology or resorted personally to blanket bans. “We’re not a tech-averse household,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, the mother of two young boys and one of the lead authors of the most recent revision of the guidelines on media and children from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There’s a good reason for Dr. Radesky to take this tack. Her profession is promoting public health. And you do that by building consensus based on evidence, not by shaming parents who aren’t doing it right. Journalism can hand-wring, divide parents from each other, and cast technology as the heart of darkness. Or it can help shed light on a serious issue that I know lots of families are struggling to get right.

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Anya Kamenetz is a correspondent for National Public Radio covering education and the author of several books on education and technology, including 2018's The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media And Real Life.