In Search of Lost Screen Time

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More than three-quarters of all Americans own a smartphone. In 2018 those 253 million Americans spent $1,380 and 1,460 hours on their smartphone and other mobile devices. That’s 91 waking days; cumulatively, that adds up to 370 billion waking American hours and $349 billion.

In 2019, here’s what we could do instead.

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On Physician Burnout and the Plight of the Modern Knowledge Worker

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On Screens and Surgeons

Atul Gawande has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the New Yorker about the negative consequences of the electronic medical records revolution. There are many points in this piece that are relevant to the topics we discuss here, but there was one observation in particular that I found particularly alarming.

One of the striking findings from Maslach’s research is that the burnout rate among physicians has been rapidly rising over the last decade. Interestingly, this rate differs between different specialities — sometimes in unexpected ways.

Neurosurgeons, for example, report lower levels of burnout than emergency physicians, even though the surgeons work longer hours and experience poorer work-life balance than ER doctors.

As Gawande reports, this puzzle was partly solved when a research team from the Mayo Clinic looked closer at the causes of physician burnout. Their discovery: one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time the doctor spent starting at a computer screen.

A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley

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The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

Ms. Stecher, 37, and her husband, Rushabh Doshi, researched screen time and came to a simple conclusion: they wanted almost none of it in their house. Their daughters, ages 5 and 3, have no screen time “budget,” no regular hours they are allowed to be on screens. The only time a screen can be used is during the travel portion of a long car ride (the four-hour drive to Tahoe counts) or during a plane trip.

The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

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…emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. To be clear, I’m not unsympathetic to parents in this predicament. My own adult children like to joke that they wouldn’t have survived infancy if I’d had a smartphone in my clutches 25 years ago.

…Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

When Your Dad Is BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith Featuring Hugo Smith, age 14, grade 9.

Hugo Smith.

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How much time would you say he spends on his phone?

Well, a lot. He used to do this thing that would just drive me insane where, while I was talking to him, he would be doing work on his phone, and he’d just be like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” And eventually I’d be like, “OK, what do you think?” And he’d be like, “Uhhhhhhhh.”

So what we convinced him to do was, when he needs to do work stuff, but he wants to spend time with us, and we catch him working like that—he goes into another room, does the work he needs to do, and then he can come back and give us his full attention.

So how did you get him to do that? Did you have to stage an intervention?

No, he sort of came up with it a bit. But also I’ve found that when I’m playing tennis, even just ping-pong, it’s great because we’re both so focused on each other.

Does your dad use Twitter a lot on his phone?

Oh yeah, occasionally at family events and stuff.

How do you know when he’s tweeting?

I check his Twitter account. He is always on Twitter.

So you’ll be at a family event, and you’ll look at Twitter just to see if your dad is tweeting?

Definitely. I’ll be like, “Dad, you retweeted something 30 seconds ago.”

But usually at those family events I’m retweeting things too.

Would you say your parents have a healthy work-life balance?

I think my dad’s definitely gotten better about it. A couple years ago, he worked more, but he’s definitely figuring it out now, it’s good.

What do you think motivated him to figure it out?

Just a lot of “Dad, get off your phone. Daddy, we’re talking to you.”

Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype

Context and content may be more important factors than time alone when it comes to technology use during childhood

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As a group of scientists from different countries and academic fields with research expertise and experience in screen time, child development and evidence-based policy, we are deeply concerned by the underlying message of this letter. In our opinion, we need quality research and evidence to support these claims and inform any policy discussion. While we agree that the wellbeing of children is a crucial issue and that the impact of screen-based lifestyles demands serious investigation, the message that many parents will hear is that screens are inherently harmful. This is simply not supported by solid research and evidence.

Kids’ Screen Time is a Feminist Issue

google search trends shows increased volume of searches for kids screen time since 2010

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The new poster child for bad parenting is the parent texting their way through dinner, while the kids do the same.

But let’s get real. When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan.  When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.

It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace—or at least nobly suffer through—all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.

The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat. I love being able to hand my kid an iPhone in a restaurant so we can go out for dinner on a night when nobody feels like cooking or cleaning up. I love knowing I can get a few quiet minutes for a business call — if I let the kids watch Netflix. I love being able to have an actual conversation with a friend while my kids enjoy their Minecraft time. Steve Jobs may have banned iPhones and iPads for his own kids, but I bet he would have rethought that position if he’d actually spent every day at home with them, instead of off running Apple.