ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:
You're listening to NPR's LIFE KIT. This is a special bonus episode of our screen time guide for parents. But non-parents will hear something helpful too, I think. We answer some of the most pressing questions parents have on everything from getting that first phone to cyberbullying.
I'm Anya Kamenetz, a reporter for NPR and the author of a book for parents called "The Art Of Screen Time." And I'm joined today by Ana Homayoun. She's an education consultant in Silicon Valley and the author of several books, including "Social Media Wellness," and she's here with me today to be your virtual village.
ANA HOMAYOUN: I always say it takes a village to raise children. It takes an online village to help keep them safe. And so as parents, if we can work to build a community of other adults that we trust that their kids feel comfortable turning to, we're creating this environment of safety that's multiplied and amplified for all of our kids.
KAMENETZ: So earlier in this guide, we talked about the positive benefits of screens and how to be a media mentor. We talked about the darker side and what we as parents can do differently. For this episode, Ana and I sat down to answer some of the questions that we didn't get to yet, including one of the most awkward topics for parents to bring up - online porn. But don't worry, we'll ease you into it.
KAMENETZ: That question is out there, and I don't want to get people listening to your podcast and just being like, whoa.
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KAMENETZ: Hi. Is this Ana?
HOMAYOUN: Hi. How are you?
KAMENETZ: I'm good. How are you?
HOMAYOUN: I am great. Thanks for having me.
KAMENETZ: Thanks for joining us for this. You know, in our initial call-out, we heard from almost 200 families that were struggling with different issues relating to technology. And we pulled out some of the most common and, I think, tough questions that we get. So are you ready to tackle these?
HOMAYOUN: Yeah, sounds good.
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KAMENETZ: OK. So first, we're going to hear from Jill Kelsey. She is a mother in Greenville, S.C., and she has an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.
JILL KELSEY: As they get older, I - my son, who is 11, is about to start middle school. He doesn't have a cell phone yet. Like, when do I get him a cell phone? What kind of cell phone does he get?
HOMAYOUN: When you're thinking about getting a child a phone for the first time, I think there's three important things to think about. The first is the circumstances. So why do they need a phone or why do they want a phone? It could be safety reasons if they're traveling or they live in multiple households or people pick them up. It could be for social reasons. The other thing really, though - and this is a case-by-case, child-by-child basis - is really looking at their maturity. You know, what is their maturity level? How do they respond to something when it doesn't go as planned? Are they impulsive?
KAMENETZ: Ana says it's more important to consider your individual child than to go just by age or by grade. Also, she says you can start slow if you want and set strong rules, especially at first.
HOMAYOUN: When I think about the first phone, I really think about this idea of incremental use, right? Getting a flip phone first, maybe then upgrading to a smartphone at some point when you think that maturity is in a right place. And the default is that you have it at night and at certain different times.
KAMENETZ: Parental control apps like Apple's Screen Time are cool, but don't underestimate the hands-on approach.
HOMAYOUN: I just think physically taking the phone, putting it in a lockbox or having a family place where phones go at certain times just creates that structure that so many people need.
KAMENETZ: So that's stuff to keep in mind when you get that first phone. Jill Kelsey in Greenville also had a follow-up question for us. She's a high school teacher, and so she's seen firsthand how social media can drive kind of conflicts and drama. And so for her daughter who's 8 years old right now, she's looking down the road.
KELSEY: I know social media can be a tough place for girls. And so how do I help her navigate that? She's a pretty confident young lady, and we love that about her. And so that's one thing that we worry about is that we don't want anything to make it harder to be a tween and a teen when she gets there.
HOMAYOUN: I think the first thing to think about there is really learning the language as a parent.
KAMENETZ: So what Ana's talking about here really cuts to the core of what's so scary for parents - I know it scares me - about smartphones and social media in our kids' lives.
HOMAYOUN: What's so disconcerting about social media and technology for so many parents and what creates so much fear and anxiety is this idea of the unknown. What's the new trend? What's the new app? What's the new thing that our kids are going to be using that we don't fully understand and we don't feel like we can shut down or protect them from completely?
KAMENETZ: Ana's solution is not to pretend like we know it all. Instead, lean into your lack of knowledge, and listen to your kids.
HOMAYOUN: I am so open with my students. When I'm clueless, I'm like, really? Really? That is what's going on? But then they're like, yeah, let me tell you more, and let me explain this to you, because they are the, you know, imparters of knowledge in that situation. And the roles are reversed, and that empowers them to also think, OK, I'm empowered to think of what my good solutions are here and if I want to opt in or opt out. And the last thing is really to help, you know, her daughter reflect on what feels appropriate and inappropriate online.
KAMENETZ: Ana has a specific strategy that she uses with the children that she works with. She calls it rehearsing the parting line.
HOMAYOUN: This is what we help students do a lot of times in our office is rehearse that line and rehearse and practice, you know, what feels inappropriate to you and what you would do in this scenario.
KAMENETZ: Basically, help a kid come up with a script so they're ready. They know what to do when something comes up.
HOMAYOUN: So if someone says something mean online, if someone says something mean about others online, if there's a video or a photo that's shared that makes them feel uncomfortable, what would their reaction be and what would their process be in order to deal with that?
KAMENETZ: So, for example, a kid could say, my mom checks my phone so can you please not send me that kind of stuff? Or, can we talk about this in person later? And there's one more important reminder for Jill, the mom of two in Greenville, who is especially concerned about her daughter.
HOMAYOUN: Make sure that she has an adult that she can turn to.
KAMENETZ: Meaning not necessarily mom or dad, like a cool aunt or former babysitter, a family friend.
HOMAYOUN: I think it's really important for parents to recognize, especially as kids get older, that they as a parent might not be the adult that their child always feels comfortable with but that our job is to always make sure that they have an adult that we trust that they would turn to.
KAMENETZ: This has actually been helpful for me, Ana, in my life - the idea that sometimes, as a parent, you need backup.
HOMAYOUN: Totally, totally.
KAMENETZ: And on the theme of safety, we're going to get to a topic that I know is really fraught. But it does come up every time I make a presentation. I'm sure you hear it a lot as well...
HOMAYOUN: (Laughter) Sure.
KAMENETZ: ...And that is pornography and inappropriate material online. And we heard from a dad. He wanted to be known just by the initials J.D. (ph) because this is so sensitive. He's in Moscow, Idaho, and he has four kids. Two of them are boys, the 14-year-old and the 12-year-old. And so this is J.D.
J D: As being a 13-year-old boy myself or 14-year-old boy, I can tell you that when I was his age, I was definitely looking - trying to get pornography any way I could because I just feel like that's the way boys are. But to have the act so accessible, you know, in the palm of his hand day in and day out, it's - to us as parents, it's very unnerving.
HOMAYOUN: Well, I think this is a really interesting question and a really important one. And I actually thank him for raising it because I think a lot of parents don't know what to do. I would actually first want to know what's been discussed in the house before around watching pornography.
KAMENETZ: This is important. So regardless of what your personal beliefs are - you know, maybe you object to all pornography on religious grounds, or maybe you're concerned about the portrayal of women - Ana says you just need to be the one to start the conversation.
HOMAYOUN: My colleague Julianna Miner - she just wrote the book "Raising A Screen-Smart Kid." And she has this great line - if you're not comfortable discussing porn or the - on the Internet with your kid, then either you're not ready to get them a phone, or they're not ready to have one.
KAMENETZ: Ana says there's lots of reasons a kid might be looking at porn, and you need to ask to find out. For one thing, they might just be curious. She says only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate, so some kids are searching online because they're lacking basic facts, or, she says...
HOMAYOUN: Are there issues around sexual identity that the young man is thinking about?
KAMENETZ: So, you know, some kids are queer or gender-nonconforming, or they have other desires as they reach puberty. And porn is what they're finding online when they look for information. Maybe you can help them with that. Ana also points out that listening nonjudgmentally is the first step to building credibility with kids.
HOMAYOUN: If you don't know the what and the how and the why, you really can't tell kids what to do.
KAMENETZ: There was a study that I cited in my book at Texas Tech that actually found this. And they followed up, and they said that parents who had had conversations with their young teenagers about pornography - just sharing their values, not condemning it - they followed up, and they found that when they left home for college, they viewed pornography less themselves. And it also had less of a negative impact on their self-esteem if their partners viewed pornography.
HOMAYOUN: I think that's really important.
HOMAYOUN: Right. And it makes sense, right? Kids - they might not listen to you right away. They may not appear like they're listening, but my work with kids for the last 20 years are saying, even when they look like they're not listening to anything you say, they are more than you think they are.
KAMENETZ: Well, and what I love about this dad, too - and I think he's really brave, and I feel a lot of empathy for him - to recognize that, you know, he tried a lot of technical fixes.
J D: All the parental controls or - you can circumvent all of them, but he's - he'd - goes on about four hours a day, which is a lot lower than the average. But to me, I feel like that's still just way too high.
KAMENETZ: He tried blocking websites. He tried tracking URLs. But ultimately, he's come to the idea that he needs to get his children's buy-in, and so this was J.D.'s final question for us.
J D: How do you get them to be on your side? You know, what are the things you can do as a parent to talk with them so that they will get on your side and, you know, do the things that you think that are right?
HOMAYOUN: That is literally the reason that I started this work around the social media and technology wellness - because we were finding that so many people were trying everything, and then there was always a workaround, right? There was always a YouTube video or a Reddit thread that told kids how to get around it. But yet if you step back - again, looking back at that study that you just referenced, having conversations, being collaborative, being part of this whole - you know, kids really want to talk about this stuff. They are going online because they're looking for answers that, for some reason, they're not getting in real life.
KAMENETZ: So next, I wanted to get into an issue that I know kind of drew you into this work in the first place, and that is the role of screens and computers in school around kids' productivity, their attention. And this comes from Tammy Bristol (ph) in Downers Grove, Ill. She has two sons. The older one is going into seventh grade, and the younger one's going into fourth grade.
TAMMY BRISTOL: My oldest had some issues just managing, you know, how much he was using the iPad. And like I said, it's hard for me to know when he's working on homework and when he's actually doing something that is playing a game or whatnot. It would look like he was doing his homework, and it was literally taking him all night and then sometimes the next morning to get his homework done. And it didn't make any sense to me.
KAMENETZ: So Tammy says that this problem really got bad when the schools gave her kids devices to use to do their homework on. And Tammy realized that her son was playing when he was supposed to be working, and it was really hard to tell.
BRISTOL: He got in trouble several times for going to those gaming sites and gaming during school. So he did actually get his iPad taken away. And I had told him - I said, if you just finish your homework, we'll give you, like, an hour of screen time afterwards. I'm comfortable doing that, but you got to get the homework done first. And it just wasn't clicking for him.
HOMAYOUN: Right. And I think 11 and 9 boys, you know - I know that age very well, and I would say that developmentally where they are, in terms of being able to juggle tasks and also to proactively prioritize work over play, is very difficult.
KAMENETZ: So Ana's saying what you're trying to do is really help kids have the tools to grow into being more responsible themselves.
HOMAYOUN: We really want to build intrinsic motivation around developing better habits, and we want them to be part of the conversation around self-regulation.
KAMENETZ: This is a subtle point, but the big picture here is that you don't want to forever be the enforcer who has to breathe down your kids' necks to get them to accomplish their goals, whether it's tech use or homework or anything else.
HOMAYOUN: So I know that it doesn't happen overnight, but I've happened to be working with boys for the last 20 years on executive functioning and time management and now bringing that to technology. And I would say, you know, she had a really good goal of saying, if you finish your homework, we'll give you an hour of screen time, right? But I actually think that seems pretty overwhelming to an 11- and 9-year-old.
KAMENETZ: Instead, Ana says, break it up into chunks.
HOMAYOUN: Do 15 minutes on. Take three minutes to five minutes. Walk around, get up, move - another 15 minutes.
KAMENETZ: So turn it into a game, kind of.
HOMAYOUN: See how much faster your homework gets done and how much more you understand it. And start with that piece of self-regulation and then move into - and again, that 15 minutes - you know, have them identify, what are they going to be doing either online or offline? We have students, you know, in high school that start from 15 minutes and work their way up so they can do 45 minutes without taking a break, and then they take a 15 to 20-minute break. Every kid is different.
KAMENETZ: You know, I feel like that's a tip I can use in my own life, not just for my kids, and also the same for this second strategy Ana suggests, which is to help your kids set up their devices for success.
HOMAYOUN: A lot of times for the students that I work with, too, depending on how your computer or your iPad is set up, we have them set up a - what we call a work screens for all their work and then a social screen. So in the work screen, they're either blocked out or signed out of all the social or gaming sites in some way. And then they have a dual screen where, you know, they have their social things that they can use later.
KAMENETZ: And in the same way, block off a physical space and a regular timeslot for homework as much as you can.
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KAMENETZ: Whether the issue is porn or homework or something else, Ana has one important reminder here, and that's parents need to understand the signs of problematic overuse.
HOMAYOUN: If your child is gaming and can't stop, and it's affecting everyday living - like, it's affecting hygiene, it's affecting moodiness, it's affecting basic eating and behavioral habits that are important - that could be a sign of problematic overuse.
KAMENETZ: And we talk more about problematic use in our episode on screen-obsessed kids. So please check that out as well. And of course, bring any concerns that you have to a pediatrician or another professional.
Let's go back to Tammy in Illinois for our last question. As she's fighting these battles at home over the iPad and laptop and homework, she's wondering how to get her kid's school to listen to her.
BRISTOL: They sent home a survey - right? - an online survey asking for feedback about the one-to-one screen program. And I was very outspoken about my feelings about how it has just really caused a lot of issues at home for us, you know, just discipline issues, taking things away. It's really hard to take away an iPad.
KAMENETZ: So this is really common, sort of this breakdown in communication between school and home over all of this technology that's coming into the classroom and into our homes. And, you know, this isn't something where there's a snap answer. But Ana really suggests a positive and proactive approach. You know, maybe you could send this podcast around to other parents or to your kids' teacher and get the conversation going about how tech is really working for everybody's kids in the classroom.
HOMAYOUN: And so if you can figure out what are the ways that you can communicate in a positive way with your school is I'm just really - I just want to understand to make sure how I can promote this in the most positive, effective way at home for my child. Are there certain guidelines - you know, coming from that proactive, positive space can be important.
KAMENETZ: And I kind of recognize that there's a theme running through your answers and I am sure in your philosophy, which has to do with respectful communication and being willing to not always know the answers.
HOMAYOUN: Absolutely. I think part of working with children in any way, shape or form is that we're constantly learning, right? Things are constantly changing. Each child in front of us is different in many ways. And the more that we can remain open to listening to who is in front of us and what the situation is from a place of, you know, solutions-oriented compassion, I think the better off we are as adults and our kids are as well. And so I think that's really the frame in which I look at my work with kids.
And then what I also think - and I know I've seen this over the last two decades in working with kids - is that it builds their own intrinsic motivation and their trust in themselves because our goal is - right? - they trust themselves to make good decisions and that they become empowered that when we're not there, when something changes, when there's a new something out there that they can use the value system that we've discussed, that we've collaborated on, to kind of reflect on and say OK, this is going to work with me. I'm going to opt into it. Or you know what? This is not for me. I'm going to opt out.
KAMENETZ: I love that. Well, Ana, thank you so much for joining us.
HOMAYOUN: Thank you for having me.
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KAMENETZ: All right, now it's time for a quick recap of what we learned on this episode of NPR's LIFE KIT. First, is it time to get your kid a phone? Well, the answer is you know your kid best, so keep their maturity levels in mind. And don't be afraid to set tough rules at first and physically take the phone away when you feel like they need it.
Second, if you want help your kids navigate social media, you got to start by listening. Ask questions. Don't be afraid to seem clueless. And before they find themselves in a tough situation, try to talk it through with them. Game it out. Give them the words that they're going to say when they need to get out of a tough situation.
Next, online porn. If you're wondering what to do about inappropriate content online, it helps if you're the one as the parent to speak up first. And just share your values. Let them know how you think about it.
Now if the issue is screens distracting kids from schoolwork, on a practical level, you can set a timer. You can help them alternate focus work with breaks. But in the big picture, remember; you're there to help them develop self-regulation, not to breathe down their necks day in and day out forever.
And our final tip is that sometimes, parents need backup. So if you're completely clueless about your kids' online lives, try reaching out to a cousin, maybe a cool aunt or a family friend, somebody who might be able to get your teens to open up, even if they won't talk to you. And by the same token, if you have serious concerns about obsessive video gaming or other problematic use, if your kid is struggling with sleep, school or relationships, then the call should be to a pediatrician or another professional.
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KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We cover everything from how to start saving for college to how to make friends as an adult. Every episode is at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics. And as always, we're going to leave you with the completely random tip, this time from Dr. Ryan Neuhofel.
RYAN NEUHOFEL: What are you supposed to do if your child sticks something in their nose that doesn't belong? Well, as a family physician and father of four, I've been there. Let me give you a tip. Before rushing to the doctor, you might first try something called the mother's kiss. With this method, you put your mouth on the child's mouth. Pinch off the unaffected nostril, and blow really hard. This method is quite effective, with studies showing it works up to two-thirds of the time. And it's certainly more fun than a trip to the emergency room.
KAMENETZ: So useful, and so funny. If you've got a good tip for us or you want to suggest a topic for an upcoming episode, email us at email@example.com.
LIFE KIT is produced by Sylvie Douglis, Alissa Escarce, Chloee Weiner and Katie Monteleone. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. This episode was edited by Steve Drummond. Our digital editor is Carol Ritchie. And our project coordinator is Claire Schneider. Music by Nick Deprey and Bryan Gerhart. Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.
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