Parents, Check Your Own Screen Habits From distracted parenting to "sharenting," an honest look at our own use of electronic media can make us into more skillful parents and better role models.

Parents, Check Your Own Screen Habits

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This is LIFE KIT for parenting, screen time guide Part 3, parents and screens. I'm your host, Anya Kamenetz, an NPR education reporter and the author of a book called "The Art Of Screen Time." And I want to start by telling you about this small study that came out a few years ago, and it kind of went viral. How viral? Well, I'll let the host on the "Today" show tell you about it.


SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: All right, we're starting with something that a lot of parents will relate to, want to listen to - some sobering advice for distracted parents. And the advice says, put down the cellphone. A new study out just this morning...

KAMENETZ: In a nutshell, the researchers went out to fast food restaurants all over Boston. And they found that out of 55 family groups observed at the restaurants, in 40 of them the grown-up was on their phone or tablet at some point during the meal. Forty out of 55, that's 73%.

And the more all these grown-ups were sucked into their phones, the more the kids seemed to act up to get their attention. And the moms and dads responded to the kids not so great, in a, quote, "harsh," quote "robotic" manner. One little boy put his hands on a woman's face just to try to get her to look up from her tablet for a second, and she pushed his little hands out of the way.

This study really struck a nerve.


JENNY RADESKY: The news response to it was amazing. It was so enormous.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, did the study when she was still a research fellow.

RADESKY: People wanted to cover this because they wanted some sort of, like, empiric evidence, something to say, like, what is going on? Science is worried about this.

KAMENETZ: Up to now, our screen time series for LIFE KIT has been full of tips on how to improve your children's relationship with technology. But in this episode, we zero in on the most important part of the equation, you. Yes, you, the mom taking pictures at the playground, the dad swiping through Twitter at dinner, the caregiver possibly listening through one earbud in front of your kids right now.

We did a call-out to get your questions, and we also have some answers. After the break, what is going on with parents and screens, from distraction to oversharing, and what science can tell us about it.


KAMENETZ: It's worth taking a moment here to note that all of us are struggling to cope with something that's really new here.

RADESKY: The telephone took decades to kind of reach 50 million global users. And we had, you know, Pokemon Go do that within, like, 2 1/2 weeks.


KAMENETZ: Dr. Jenny Radesky, the author of that fast food restaurant study, is now one of the top researchers in the field of parents, children and new media.

RADESKY: We all feel a little bit, you know, like we've been blown over by a tidal wave - all this new stuff and not really feeling sure how to adapt to it.

KAMENETZ: You met her in the first two episodes of this guide. She also has two little boys. And since that first study of hers went so crazy in the media, Dr. Radesky is very sensitive to the idea that she's parent-shaming.

RADESKY: Sometimes my - I felt like my words were a little bit spun to be judgy of parents.

KAMENETZ: We'll hear a little bit later how she feels that we need to get the focus off parents a little bit and onto the companies that produce the technology that we're so obsessed with. But in the meantime, she can tell you this. You and I are probably picking up our phones more than we realize, and that's probably affecting our kids. So this is our takeaway No. 1. Put your phone away whenever possible when you're with your kids.

MINAL SRIVASTAVA: You know, we're having dinner. It typically goes for 15, 20 minutes.

KAMENETZ: Minal Srivastava (ph) is one of the parents who responded to our call-out. She lives in Seattle with her husband and a 20-month-old.

SRIVASTAVA: And then one of us is going to get a, you know, maybe a message from work or a notification about an email. And then there's this urge and temptation to just check it immediately.

KAMENETZ: And she says she and her husband differ on this issue of phones at dinner.

SRIVASTAVA: I wouldn't say that we're working together on that. It's just me trying to (laughter) convince him to not use the phone while on the dinner table and him resisting.

KAMENETZ: The truth is parents of young kids pick up our phones an average of almost 70 times a day. That's according to a study Dr. Radesky recently published. But most of the parents in that study underestimated the true number. Minal has this argument with her husband that sounds super common.

SRIVASTAVA: And I'm like, why are you on your phone? And he's like, I'm doing something. I'm starting the Roomba. Or I'm, you know - I'm turning the heat on or the cooling on. So he's like, well, I'm actively doing something. I'm doing a chore around the house, so why are you - (laughter) why are you, like, calling me out on that?

KAMENETZ: So how much does it really matter if you check your phone or tablet or computer when you're with your kids? Sometimes it matters a lot. In at least two cases, distracted parenting can be a literal life-or-death issue. That's when you're driving with your kids or when you're at the pool - period. Don't do it. In other cases, there may be more of a gray area. I mean, our kids don't need us to be making eye contact with them all the time.

But if people around you, which may include your spouse or your kids or both, are getting annoyed by your screen use, here's some tips to try. Apps like Moment or Screen Time in the iPhone can track your screen use, which gives you a little bit of a reality check. And they can block the phone from working at certain times, like during dinner.

Or you can try physically stashing it in a different part of the house. I really try to do this. I try to leave it in the charger during the morning routine. And when I get home for the evening rush until bedtime, I just leave it in my bag. Or you can turn off your notifications so you decide when to check that phone.


KAMENETZ: OK. So far, so good. But what if you try these tricks for using your phone less around your kids, and you find it really hard? In that case, you might need to look a little deeper for the reason why. And this is our takeaway No. 2. Stop using the phone as a pacifier for you or for your kid.

Look, I happen to have a 2-year-old at home right now. And I know - I really, really know - taking care of children can be stressful. They're making constant demands on your attention, and they're often struggling with big feelings, whether it's teenagers or toddlers. And if you have a toddler at home, this scene might sound familiar to you. The kid seems to be heading for a tantrum...


KAMENETZ: ...We whip out the tablet. We turn on "Peppa Pig"...


KAMENETZ: ...And we pick up our own phone and scroll through Instagram for a mini mental vacation.


KAMENETZ: Ahh (ph). Dr. Radesky's research has been getting deeper into these kinds of little micro-interactions between parents, the kids and the screens. And she's found two things happening kind of in parallel. One is little kids with more behavior problems - more tantrums, more anxiety - they tend to get more screen time, maybe to chill them out.

By the same token, the less confident and the more stressed out parents are, the more they also tend to use more screens themselves around their kids.

RADESKY: The study I loved most that came out of that research was we followed families over six months. And it was both true that the higher the child's behavioral problems, the more stressed out parents were and the more they used devices while in parent-child activities with that child.

KAMENETZ: In other words, the more kids acted out, the more stressed the parents got. The more stressed parents got, the more they turned to their own screens. But the more the parents turned to screens, the more kids acted out. What this also suggests is we parents aren't just picking up our phones because we're distracted. We're reaching for our phones to escape, for just a minute, from the stresses of home and, specifically, from a kid who isn't behaving the way we'd like her to.


KAMENETZ: And this - this actually changed the way I think about all my relationships, not just about parenting. Dr. Radesky told me that when you check out in those tough moments, you miss out on important information that can help you become a better parent and help prevent more tough moments in the future.

RADESKY: When your child is acting crazy, one of the things that really helps is to kind of be a detective and be a little bit objective about it and say, like, OK, what is driving this? Why are they doing this?

KAMENETZ: We need to watch, listen and gather evidence so we can respond in the right way and help our kids calm down.

RADESKY: When you are interrupting or displacing time with your kids, it's actually harder to read their mind. It's harder to think about their emotional state. It's harder to understand the motivations behind their behavior. And that makes it harder to help solve a problem in a moment of distress when it comes up.

KAMENETZ: So don't parent like a robot, Dr. Radesky says. Parent like a detective. For me personally, reflecting on the deeper reasons I might pick up my phone around my kids has helped me do it a little less.

Still, sometimes the boss is trying to reach you. And as I talk about in my book "The Art Of Screen Time," there are some practices to follow if you do need to use your phone sometimes around your kids. For example, look for those moments your kids are truly engaged and happy doing something else, and then check the phone. Or on the other hand, here's a tip from researcher danah boyd. Narrate what you're doing so your kids understand why you're looking at the phone. Let's check the weather to see what you should wear to school, or let's ask mom to pick up milk on her way home from work.

So up to this moment in the podcast, we've been treating the screen kind of as a black box - you know, what it does to your face-to-face interactions with your family when you have your phone in your hand. For the rest of the takeaways, we're going to shift gears a little. And let's now talk about what's inside the screen - how your habits and your interactions online can affect the relationship you have with your family. And to that point, our takeaway No. 3 is before you post a picture or share a cute story about your kids in social media, think twice. And get their permission if you can.

CHELSEA WHITWER: OK, so what do you guys think about your parents posting on the Internet?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I don't really like it because, like, I didn't ask. And it's sometimes an embarrassing photo.

WHITWER: What about you? How do you feel about your parents posting on the Internet?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: If it's, like, an OK photo, then sure. It's fine. But if, like - yeah, if it's an embarrassing photo, then I don't I want it. And I want them to ask me.

KAMENETZ: Those are fifth graders in Chelsea Whitwer’s class in Kirkwood, Mo.


KAMENETZ: They entered NPR's Student Podcast Challenge earlier this year with a podcast they made all about what kids think about what parents are posting online. You know, parents are really posting a lot about their kids. A British study found that parents share about 1,500 images of our children by the time they are 5 years old. Stacey Steinberg believes we should think twice about this behavior, which she calls sharenting (ph). Get it? Steinberg is a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law with a special interest in children's rights. She's also a photographer and a mother of three. And she started to wonder...

STACEY STEINBERG: How could we balance our kids' right to privacy with our interest in sharing our stories.

KAMENETZ: Notice that Steinberg says balance. Parents have legit interests in talking about their families. I mean, I've done it here in this very podcast, and we also invite other parents to do so as well, sometimes in really vulnerable ways, as you heard in the last episode of the screen time guide. But Stacey Steinberg suggests that there are also risks and tradeoffs here. She wants...

STEINBERG: For parents to consider the well-being of their kids, not only right now, but years into the future if they were to come across the information that had been being shared.

KAMENETZ: Here's what to keep in mind before you post about your kids. First of all, Steinberg says, check your privacy settings on all social media sites. If you openly share too much personally identifiable information of your children - like their faces, their names, their birthdays, exact addresses - that can expose them to data brokers who build profiles and sell them to marketers or even to hackers, who can create fake accounts and ruin a kid's credit before they even go to kindergarten. Second, Steinberg says...

STEINBERG: I recommend that parents not share naked pictures of their kids.

KAMENETZ: Or videos - even if the exposure is brief. Enough said, I hope. Finally, she says - and in some ways, this is the most important.

STEINBERG: We need to give kids veto power over what it is that we share about them online.

KAMENETZ: For example, after her 8-year-old's last gymnastics meet, Steinberg put the laptop up on the kitchen counter so the two of them could look together.

STEINBERG: We went through the videos and the pictures from his last meet. He picked out the ones that he liked - that he thought his toes were pointed in right or that he looked strong in. And we posted them. And then people would say, oh, that was so great or, he's going to go to the Olympics one day or whatever. And he sat on the barstool next to me at the kitchen counter, and he would write back to that person.

KAMENETZ: So I like this for a couple of reasons. Of course, it's protective of our kids' privacy and self-image. It helps them stay connected with friends and family online. And on top of that, it's a great way of role-modeling positive and respectful behavior and good judgment on social media. Kids really need these training wheels to understand how to interact online before they start their own accounts.


KAMENETZ: By the way, we talked to Jenna Mihms, one of the moms of the students in Missouri. And she said their podcasts really surprised her.

JENNA MIHMS: I thought it was interesting how sensitive the kids were of the thought of being embarrassed by things that parents post.

KAMENETZ: Jenna says she sometimes feels a social pressure to post online even though she's personally inclined to be more private.

MIHMS: And I've actually asked them before if it makes them feel bad that I don't post about them because I know that's an opportunity for parents to sort of brag on their kids and highlight accomplishments.

KAMENETZ: When she's online, she says...

MIHMS: You know, I see all these great accomplishments and proud parent moments, that I didn't want my kids to feel that their parents didn't love them just as much as every other parent.

KAMENETZ: Jenna actually has an amazing example of mentoring her kids on social media with her oldest, Mallory, who's 13. Last summer, Mallory wanted to get on Instagram. But she didn't necessarily want to show her face because she saw how her friends were just sweating it out over the perfect selfie.

MALLORY: You can't have any flaws. And everything - like, you have to look normal and trendy.

KAMENETZ: Jenna helped Mallory think through all of this by sharing her own feelings.

MIHMS: So if I'm feeling, as a 45-year-old, you know, thinking about posting pictures of my daughter's viola solo, I recognize that pressure is even greater when you're 13 and you actually care even more.

KAMENETZ: She says she's proud of Mallory for making a different choice. Instead of starting a personal account, Mallory has an Instagram that has nothing but pictures of the family cat, Murphy.


KAMENETZ: And she even learned how to use Photoshop so she could put Murphy in an igloo at the North Pole or at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And in the past year, Mallory's account has grown to 17,000 followers.

MALLORY: I want to get to 20,000 by the end of the summer.

KAMENETZ: So the theme here is helping our kids explore online while also being respectful of their needs and their interests. And those two ideas also connect to the next takeaway. I know it's tempting, but how can I put this? Takeaway No. 4, don't use technology to stalk your children.

Apps like Find My iPhone now give us the ability to see where our children are physically at all times, but that's not all. You can check their browser history, look up every single grade, read their group chats and, of course, text them all day long. But should you? Alexandra McDonald in Hull, Mass., knows this temptation very well. Her twins just finished sixth grade. And her older son just graduated high school. And she says...

ALEXANDRA MCDONALD: Their grades are all online. And so they can look, and I can look at any time, see if there are assignments missing, see, you know, that - what their - you know, has their grades changed? And that, I think, can be - it's got - it's a double-edged sword. I mean, it's good that we can keep up and see what they're doing.

KAMENETZ: But at some point, she says, it's the kid's life, not yours.

DEVORAH HEITNER: When our kids feel trusted, they often will make better decisions, actually, than if they don't feel trusted - right? - because we're not encouraging them to sort of feel like they need to sort of lie or be deceptive. So that's good.

KAMENETZ: That's Devorah Heitner, a parent educator and the author of "Screenwise," who you met in the last episode.


KAMENETZ: Ultimately, she says, we're raising adults. They'll grow up. They'll go off to college. And they need to make their own choices. So in the meantime, we have to balance protecting them with empowering them. One concrete tip is when your children turn 13 and get their own social media accounts, you should write down and put the passwords in a sealed envelope. And let them know that if they seem to be in trouble, if their grades slip, if they're out past curfew, you will open up the envelope, and you will find out what you need to know.

And another suggestion that again comes from danah boyd, the social media researcher and the author of a book called "It's Complicated," she says, you know, your kid may or may not choose to be your friend on social media. You may not even know how to use TikTok or whatever it is. As they get later on into high school, it's really good if you can have other trusted people in their network, like older siblings, cousins, family friends, aunties - people who are cool enough to follow them and who will let you know if something really terrible is happening. It really does take a village.

I did this whole screen time series to be useful for you, for parents, to give tips and strategies. But more and more, I've also learned something along the way. The online world, it uses all kinds of tricks to suck in our attention all the time. Media, whether it's for adults or for kids, it's stuffed with intrusive ads. And both privacy controls and parental controls are really hard to use and easy to get around.


KAMENETZ: Our final takeaway is pulling back the frame a little bit. Takeaway No. 5, work for healthier technology for your kids and for all of us. Dr. Radesky literally wrote the rules for parents to follow - The American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines on children and media. But at this point, she says...

RADESKY: I just felt - you know, have gotten fed up with the expectation that the onus needs to be on parents here.

KAMENETZ: She says that with today's technology, promoting a healthy balance is like telling a family to eat organic, homecooked meals when their neighborhood is full of nothing but fast food and convenience stores. That's why she and other public health experts are promoting collective action and regulation. She says we all need to speak up for more safety rules on kids media, to find out what's happening in your school or in your state.

For example, Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey recently introduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act, or KIDS Act, to limit marketing and try to address algorithms that put harmful content in front of kids. And Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has also introduced legislation to protect kids on YouTube. Other organizations that are working on these issues are Common Sense Media's Truth About Tech campaign and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

All right. So maybe you checked your phone once or twice during the podcast, or maybe your kid needed something. It's OK. I got you. It's time now for the recap.


KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 1, put your phone away whenever possible when you're with your kids. Leave it on the charger. Turn off notifications. And if you do pick it up, tell them why. Takeaway No. 2 is stop using the phone as a pacifier for your kids or for you. Tune in for those tough moments. Over the long run, it will payoff. Takeaway No. 3 is our sharenting takeaway. Before you post a picture or share a story about your kids on social media, think twice and get their permission if you can.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I want them to ask me to post something.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 4 is don't use technology to stalk your kids. As Devorah Heitner says...

HEITNER: When our kids feel trusted, they often will make better decisions, actually.

KAMENETZ: And finally, our takeaway No. 5 is work for healthier technology for your kids and for all of us.


KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes in this guide. In one, we meet a family that's struggling to overcome screen overuse for all three of their kids. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at 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 here, as always, is a completely random tip, this time from NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: We always had hydrangeas around the house when I was growing up in California. And if the blooms wilted, there was a really simple solution. You just give the flowers a bath. Totally submerge them - flower, stems, all of it - in cold water for about 45 minutes. Then recut the stems and put them back in a vase of fresh water. It'll take about an hour for them to completely revive, and then you'll get to enjoy them for a few more days.

KAMENETZ: If you've got a tip for us or want to suggest a topic, email us at I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

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