Updated: Jun 6
This article is an edited excerpt from the book Screens That Eat Children by Ross Parker.
Recently I was sitting beside a swimming pool, observing school-aged children at play. At a guess, I would place their ages between nine and twelve. Regretfully, they were not swimming. Rather, each was staring at their own phone. Their behavior was robotic, hypnotized, and thoroughly distressing. For over an hour, they scrolled and looked, scrolled and looked, scrolled and looked. Across their screens flashed image after video after image after the video. Funny dances, makeup tutorials, travel, fancy food, silly cartoons. They had it all. And yet, they did not speak, they did not look up and they did not look happy. Captivated? Yes. Entranced? Yes. Stimulated? Yes. Mostly, however, they looked bored, lonely, and lost. To me this is not childhood, it is enslavement. It is a classic example of children whose screens have eaten.
Of the many things that we can do to help our children learn to live positively with screens, the very first is to become better role models ourselves. In much the same way that I longed to be like the adult smokers of the 1980s, our children want to be like the adult phone addicts of the 2020s. What grown-ups do, children will esteem and emulate.
A number of years ago I started to realize that I had a problem with my phone: its siren call was inescapable, and it all too frequently appeared, unbidden in my hand. I would go to check the time, and end up somewhere else entirely. Instead of spending time with my young children, I would sneak off to use my phone. Any unfilled time slot of more than ten seconds would be filled with phone use.
In learning to defang the beast, I’ve come across some great ways to take back control:
Tristan Harris’s advice to set your phone to grayscale, which initially seems too simplistic to work, has proven a game changer. A black and white screen really is so dull as to reduce the compulsion of the whole experience.
Removing all non-essential apps was another big step, as was turning off notifications for all but direct human contact.
Deleting social media helped me escape the FOMO treadmill, in which we mindlessly consume a very skewed picture of the lives of others.
Recently I have begun a digital fast each Friday after work, which I aim not to break until Sunday morning. My phone and laptop are put away, out of sight, and this gives me 36 hours of uninterrupted peace in which to be present with my family, read, bake bread, and otherwise be human. Once or twice in that period, I will deliberately check my phone’s notification screen to make sure that there have been neither family emergencies, nor any blow-ups in our school systems, but I am careful not to unlock my phone on these occasions.
Once our own usage is under control we can start to expect the same of our children. Take the time to discuss your own struggles, before considering these ways to help your children:
Don’t make screens taboo. Discuss them openly and honestly with your children, and focus on the benefits that we can gain and the costs that we ought not to bear.
Keep screens in view, setting up your house so that devices are never out of your sight, allowing you to get to know what your children do with their screens, and offer guidance to them in real-time. Avoiding headphones allows you to hear as well as see.
Delay smartphone ownership and social media until 13 years of age at the very earliest, longer if you can. We know that these technologies are harmful to our children, so arm yourself with robust evidence and powerful stories, and have an honest chat with your children when they start asking.
Avoid purely technical solutions - whilst some controls, software, and settings can be useful in terms of steering the behavior of your child, many such solutions are surprisingly easy to overcome. Instead, be a present parent and establish healthy norms (see point 2 above). However, smartphones should always have controls, as they are simply too powerful to leave unrestricted.
Discuss the parameters within which screens can be used, setting clear boundaries and consequences for errant behavior. Don’t moralize, but do be clear and consistent in enforcing these. Simple, bullet-pointed contracts can be a great way to frame such agreements.
Ideally, you can ensure that your children lead full, independent, active, and authentic lives, helping them learn to navigate the real world safely and with confidence, whilst spending time with other children away from the company of adults. Addiction of all kinds tends to impact those whose lives are stressful and joyless, so give your children some immunity to compulsive screen use through better living.
As parents, it is important for us to ask if we will help our children to live with meaning in a world of others, or merely study, work, consume, poke devices...and die. Screens, and compulsive screen use, are not something we nor our children need to tolerate, and the right concepts, approaches, tools, and support can go a long way in protecting us all.
Learn more about Screens That Eat Children at screensthateatchildren.com and via Twitter @screensthateat.
Author: Ross Parker, Screens That Eat Children. A long-time Hong Konger, Ross is a parent of two and Director of Technology & Assessment at ICHK Secondary School.