Screen time for kids – the Silicon Valley rich cannot define what works

There have been a number of articles recently about how Silicon Valley executives limit screen-time for their kids. This needs some thought before being taken at face-value.

First, it’s clearly true that a range of famous Silicon Valley executives do limit their younger children’s access to devices; and their given reasons revolve around the fact that they are concerned that younger children can’t regulate their use of the devices well. Pretty much across the board the reports have them not allowing their kids to have phones until they are 11.

There’s certainly a lot to be said for such thoughtful regulation, but there’s also a grave danger in cherry-picking one aspect of their lifestyle choices and applying it to the World at large. These kids may not have access to phones, but they do have substantial trust finds. They go to expensive and exclusive schools where a focus on play and learning without computers can be encouraged in a context of fabulous facilities and lots of teacher attention. They have nannies.

The latest article on this topic appeared in the New York Times this weekend. The main article on screen time was accompanied by a second, and less discussed, piece on how “Child care contracts now demand that nannies hide phones, tablets, computers and TVs from their charges”. Reading the two articles together drove home how much a decision on screen-time is a sign of privilege. It’s all very well to say your child should only get to run in the park, and play board games, and do art, if you have the time to facilitate that yourself or can hire someone to do that. Whether your child has a nanny or a stay-at-home parent are both signs of privilege that most people can’t aspire to.

If you’re a busy couple juggling all the things that go into a modern life including two jobs, multiple after-school activities, long days, rushed meals, and so on – the idea of not creating space with a screen is almost ludicrous.

Now it may well be that it would be better for the child to not have a screen for distraction while her mother cooks dinner – but that’s a reality we have to find a way to work with. Until recently, the reality was that generations of kids grew up with re-runs of MASH or I Dream of Jeannie as their only after school entertainment choice. While I struggle to see that playing a computer games is much worse, the real point is that there were just as many dire warnings about the consequences and we all ended up finding a way to muddle along fine.

Just because fabulously rich Silicon Valley executives live differently is not, of itself, a sign the rest of us can follow suit. No more than most people can choose to go to a private island for a holiday, or drive the latest Tesla car, or whatever else is in vogue with rich West Coast Americans these days.

Screen time is clearly something that all of us have to find a way to come to terms with. We have to come to terms with it in our daily lives as functioning adults, as workers, and as parents. And it’s still new enough that until recently it wasn’t a big issue. My kids are 17 and 15, and for the first few years of their lives the only real screen time issue was TV (which of course at the time, and for the preceding decades, was the big concern trotted out regularly in the media). It was only recently that even the idea of giving the child a phone or tablet could have been a concern. So, yes, we haven’t yet worked out how to deal with this new reality.

(And by the way, it’s worth considering when reading articles like that in the NYT, that Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ kids are older or similar ages to my kids. When they say they didn’t allow them phones until they were 11-years-old – well, the import of that decision was different 8-15 years ago than it is today.)

Anyway, what is clear is that we are going to have to find a way to come to terms with the reality of ubiquitous screens in our lives. Just as we have to come to terms with the reality of a global economy, of both parents working, of the need to discern fake news, and of all the other things that go to make up our new World. It may well be that the capacity to restrict screen time will come to be seen as a social marker in the same way that having an au pair or expensive clothes might be. Or we have to find a way to ensure that the screen time is regulated and used for good at all levels of society.

The fact that people intimately involved in creating, and intimately involved in profiting from, the technology are worried about its impact on their children is certainly interesting and food for thought. I’m not debating, here, the screen time argument. But before we all become too worried or guilty, we have to come back down to the real World where choices are dictated on a different level than in the rarefied heights of Silicon Valley. When the discussion turns to having your nanny hide screens from your child, your lifestyle choices cannot be the basis for a useful discussion about how everyone should live.

2 thoughts on “Screen time for kids – the Silicon Valley rich cannot define what works

  • October 29, 2018 at 10:38 am

    You hit the nail on the head about privilege of stay-at-home parent or nanny – and even then keeping kids occupied can be a pretty intensive exercise!
    With younger kids, the existence of Netflicks (combined with BBC/ABC) has led to them seeing a lot fewer ads that I would have expected. True there are the usual bunch of cartoons as ads (Beyblades is a current example), but overall this is probably a big change over 5 years ago.

    • October 29, 2018 at 10:43 am

      Good point about the ads. Also you get to choose what your child watches – as opposed to whatever is on TV at that time.


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