Moderating Media for the Kids

Some have asked how we deal with technology for our three young children

What's the Matter with Media?

As I'm writing this post, my three children1 are watching "Alvin and the Chipmunks" on DirectTV in a home we've rented in Sea Ranch for the long 4th of July weekend. They started watching about 15 minutes in to the movie because the rule was that they all had to have their bath and get in jammies before we would start the 5:30pm movie time. They don't understand when movies start on their own because they've been raised on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. So I admit that I too have succumbed to the tantalizing fruits of "pacifying" children with screen time.

Screen Time

"Screen time" is an issue for every family, though each family has to decide for itself what the rules and boundaries are. I'm sure you've seen the toddler, tween, or teenager glued to a smartphone or tablet. I'm also sure you've seen the busy mom, dad, or nanny also frantically typing, tapping, and scrolling while little ones run rampant. I myself use my phone way too much. So much so that my autocorrect can even cast shade.

Learned Behavior

Like their parents, kids have definitely jumped on the phone bandwagon, with the average age now for getting a first phone is 10.3 years old.

Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives2

Kids obviously pick up behavior from their surroundings. But we don't hand out kids phones or tablets to pacify them (most of the time). We had introduced "Friday Funday" as a family movie night. We'd get pizza and let them pick a cartoon or movie to watch, and that was their reward for being good during the week.

It became clear that there were a handful of problems with this approach:

  1. An entire week is a long time for kids to be good, too long for us to be on top of their behavior and whether they have earned the privilege or not for all 168 hours, and difficult or impossible for them to conceptualize (at least the 3 and 4 year old). Most of the time they're not sure what day it is.
  2. Watching TV or a movie in the evening at the end of a week of pre-school, play dates, full time jobs, etc. sounds relaxing but actually amps up the kids too much for bed time to run smoothly.
  3. They never pick a movie the entire family wants to watch, let alone agree among themselves between Daniel Tiger, Octonauts, and Wild Kratz3.
  4. If you think your Netflix binge behavior is hard to curb, you should see some kids when you tell them show time is over.

It's downright scary to see how engrossed the kids are in the shows. It's almost regardless of the content or quality. Frequently when they disagree about what to watch, they don't separate and do other things, they just tune in to the show they, moments ago, railed against watching because "it's dumb", "it's for babies", "it's too scary", or "we've already watched that!"

Change it up

So my wife came to the realization that we needed to change Friday Funday into Friday Family day. We build Lego, do puzzles, draw, etc. instead of watching something. Saturday morning is now an opportunity to watch a show, but to be honest, we make pancakes or waffles and the kids rush to go outside and play instead most of the time. This has helped further cut down on the screen time, which we feel is a good thing.

As a friend of mine once told me about parenthood "Everything is a phase, even the good stuff." We're still well under the average age of kids getting their own devices, and what we're dealing with now and our approach will change over time. So what is our plan for when the kids' independence increases, the pressure to allow them to have their own devices increase, and our fears of the risks and dangers of technology increases? Too soon to say. In 4-6 years there may yet be another change in behaviors, products, and technology that requires new or additional approaches.

The future

Developing a rigid plan for that kind of timeframe is unlikely to be successful, but hopefully resources like common sense media will continue to evolve and help provide guidance or ideas for parents. There are even some movements parents are joining to support each other, such as agreeing not to provide kids with phones. This alleviates the peer pressure of some children having devices and others not. The Wait Until the 8th pledge aims to help parents band together in just this way.

The pledge doesn't apply to basic phones that just text or make phone calls. It's only for smartphones. When you make the pledge, you select your child's school. Once 10 parents from that child's school and grade make the pledge, it becomes activated.

When is the right age to buy your child a smartphone?

Read more and decide for yourself and your family:

  1. Ages 6, 4, and 3 at the time of this writing.
  2. There is some debate about these studies' accuracy. I think the point stands whether it's 10.3, 8, or 6.
  3. Ok, that's not really a big deal.