Even Techies Limit Their Children's Screen Time

Originally published on October 7, 2014 7:54 pm

Sure, using tablets and computers can have upsides for children. They can provide, education for one, or just plain old entertainment value.

But we know there are downsides, too. NPR reported just last week on a study indicating screen time can negatively affect children's ability to read people's emotions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends "screen-free zones" at home. No more than one to two hours of entertainment media a day for kids, and none for kids under two.

So how do people who work for big tech companies, like Google or Yahoo, approach this with their own children?

Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC's New Tech City, tells NPR's Melissa Block that most people who work in the tech industry do regulate their children's screen time. Zomorodi's full show on techies and parenting comes out Wednesday.


Interview Highlights

On the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a low-tech parent

That is what Nick Bilton wrote about recently in The New York Times. ... So Nick and I got together to sort of swap stories about how technologists deal with their kids and screens, and Steve Jobs is really just the jumping-off point. So many people in tech are not worried about making sure that their kids learn to code. They put very strict limits on the very gadgets and software that they spend their days developing.

On Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, who says tablets give advertisers unregulated access to children

A generation ago, right, our parents told us, "Take your bathroom break during the commercials," right? "They're a waste of time." And now parents are trying to teach their kids some of the tricks of digital advertising — the in-app purchases, or requiring a login.

But on the whole, most of the tech parents that I spoke to, they seem to be more concerned about that addictive nature that Susan Linn referred too, and they're less worried about exposing their kids to advertising. I mean, after all, that's where their paychecks come from, and advertising is how many of these tech companies fund their less-commercial research. So I think they sort of see it as a trade-off, and that their kids just have to be savvy.

On Sameer Ajmani, a Google engineer from Brooklyn, who had a thoughtful approach to limit his son's screen time

They recently did a little experiment on their oldest son, 7-year-old Nolan. For one week they gave him absolutely no limits on screen time to see if he would self-regulate, you know, put the iPad away when he'd had enough.

The experiment, Melissa, was a complete and utter disaster. He binged. So now they have rules about fun time versus educational screen time.

On how Zomorodi's reporting has affected her own parenting

I think it's very interesting that the sort of guidelines that the [American Academy of Pediatrics] has put out, they specify entertainment screen time. And it makes me sort of start to wonder, is there a difference between educational versus entertainment screen time?

Speaking from experience — I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old — and just every day we sort of are grappling this. We don't have any idea, scientifically, yet, what entertainment or educational screen time is doing to us or to our kids. So for me, at this point, I would rather that my kids watch Mary Poppins or a good old-fashioned show with a narrative arc and a lesson at the end, rather than constantly swiping, swiping, swiping at a screen. But just me — maybe that's how a journalist parents.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now a conversation about how Techies regulate screen time with their kids. There are upsides of tablets and computers for children - education for one and just plain old entertainment value. And we know there are downsides. NPR reported last week on a study that indicates screen time can negatively affect children's ability to read people's emotions. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screen-free zones at home, no more than one to two hours of entertainment media a day for kids - and that includes television - and none for kids under two. So how do people who work for big tech companies like Google or Yahoo approach this with their own children? We're going to talk about that with Manoush Zomorodi. She's host of the WNYC podcast New Tech City. Hi, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And this is a question you haven't been exploring for an upcoming podcast. For starters, you mention a revelation about one of the biggest names in Tech, the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs.

ZOMORODI: That's right. So Melissa, Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent. That is what Nick Bilton wrote about recently in the New York Times. And if you're a parent, you've - probably saw this article. It was being passed around in all of our circles. While- so Nick and I got together to sort of swap stories about how technologists deal with their kids and screens. And Steve Jobs is really just the jumping off point. So many people in tech are not worried about making sure that their kids learn to code. They put very strict limits on the very gadgets and software that they spend their days developing.

BLOCK: And Manoush, it sounds like some of the sharpest criticism that you've heard about screen time for kids is coming not from the tech world. It's coming from the group The Campaign for Commercial-free Childhood and its founder, Susan Linn, who says she's really worried about how advertisers get free access to kids through smart phones and tablets - things like that. Let's listen to how she explains her concerns.

SUSAN LINN: No parents in history have ever had to cope with the unprecedented convergence of a ubiquitous, sophisticated, alluring, habit-forming screen technology and unfettered, unregulated advertisement. And that combination is really what the major problem is.

BLOCK: So Manoush, when you put that point to people in the tech world, what do they say?

ZOMORODI: Well, you know Melissa, a generation ago - right - our parents told us take your bathroom break during the commercials, right? They are a waste of time. And now parents are trying to teach their kids some of the tricks of digital advertising - the in app purchases or requiring a login. But on the whole, most of the tech parents that I spoke, they seem to be more concerned about that addictive nature that Susan Linn referred to. And they're less worried about exposing their kids to advertising. I mean, after all that's where their paychecks come from, and advertising is how many of these tech companies fund their less commercial research. So I think they sort of see it as a trade-off and that their kids just have to be savvy.

BLOCK: And you heard a whole bunch about that - that addictive component when you went to a family in Brooklyn. It's a Google engineer - his wife is a child psychologist. They have a couple of kids. What did you observe when you were with them?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I went to visit Sameer and Mandy Ajmani. They have three kids. And it's interesting. They recently did a little experiment on their oldest son, 7-year-old Nolan. For one week, they gave him absolutely no limits on screen time. To see if he would self-regulate - you know, put the iPad away when he had had enough. The experiment, Melissa with, was a complete and utter disaster. He binged. So now they have rules about fun screen time versus educational screen time. And here's how Sameer puts it.

SAMEER AJMANI: I have tried to explain to Nolan that I want him to be learning stuff when he is spending time on the screen and try to help him understand the difference between which are the apps I say it's OK to spend time on this because it's learning screen versus OK this is just candy for your brain. And, you know, we're going to limit that the same way we do real candy.

BLOCK: And Manoush, that can sound really great in theory - much harder to make that work in practice for a lot of parents.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah. And speaking from experience, I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old and just every day we sort of our grappling this. We don't have any ideas scientifically yet what entertainment or educational screen time is doing to us or to our kids. So at this point, we all have to make our decisions for ourselves.

BLOCK: And how have you negotiated that with your own two kids?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Well, at this point, I have decided - and my husband, too - that we would rather our kids watch Mary Poppins or a show with a good narrative arc rather than, you know, this swiping, swiping at a screen. But maybe that's just how a journalist parents.

BLOCK: (Laughter) That's your story. You're sticking to it.

ZOMORODI: That's right.

BLOCK: Manoush Zomorodi hosts of the podcast New Tech City from our member station, WNYC. Manoush, thanks so much.

ZOMORODI: Thank you.

BLOCK: And you can download her whole show on Techies and Parenting this week. It comes out on Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.