Grown-Up Reads

Why Raising a Screen-Smart Kid Isn’t a Perfect Science

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: Tom Werner, DigitalVision/Getty Images

As I was reading Julianna Miner’s new book, Raising a Screen Smart Kid, my 11-year-old daughter was on day three without her smartphone — which is to say, I’m pretty much the target audience. I’m winging it, in terms of what she can and can’t do – how many minutes or hours a day? Which apps? And, if I’m honest, I could use someone to parent my smartphone and social media habits, too, while I try to stay at least one step ahead of my children.

Luckily, Miner – adjunct professor of global and community health at George Mason University, as well as one of the bloggers behind Rants from Mommyland – has done a lot of the thinking for us. And I had a chance to chat with her about what we, as parents, do now that screens have taken over.

What prompted you to write the book — was there a specific incident?

I think it was a combination of things. I’ve been an internet person — a blogger and social media manager — for years. I’m never without my phone in my hand. The year that my daughter got a cell phone, she was 12. And I wouldn’t let her get social media accounts. We had this big conversation, she said, “Everyone else has them! Why can’t I have them?” I really had to think about answering. I always want to answer the whys.

My research led me to the concept of the imaginary audience [the tendency for adolescents to assume – falsely – that what they say or do or how they look is the focus of other people’s attention]. And that confirmed for me the “why” behind wanting her to wait until she was 13. I ended up researching and writing 5,000 words about the imaginary audience. I shared it with a friend. She said, “This is super nerdy. I don’t think you can put it on your humor blog. But maybe you could write about it somewhere else.”

I love how you start every chapter with these relatable narratives — including your own. It really drives home the feeling of being young, and all the cringe-worthy aspects of middle school, amped up on social media — and how we need to go through this with them, together. 

It’s all about mentoring versus monitoring, which is from another woman who writes about kids and tech, Devorah Heitner.

It’s so easy to fall into this idea that you constantly have to watch over them. With my 16-year-old and 14-year-old, it’s “Get off the Xbox. Put down Snapchat. Go mow the lawn.” At the same time, when they’re online, it has to be a more collaborative experience — you’re not just keeping them from doing the bad stuff, you have to actively demonstrate how to do the good stuff. You have to be mindful of your own use, and then narrate it out loud: “I’m putting my phone in the other room because I can’t concentrate” or “I’ve had to turn off my notifications, because I find the pinging is giving me squirrel brain.”

My husband has worked in and with law enforcement for years. I am well aware of the fact that there is no privacy. Nothing online is private. My kids are on my phone constantly, they’re using it to cue up music, going through my photos — I’m okay with that. It’s not like anything on my phone is off limits.

But there’s illicit stuff everywhere.

Once your kid has a phone, even if they don’t go looking for it, they’re gonna find it.

Right, you mention in the book that porn is a when conversation, not an if conversation. 

In fourth grade, my daughter had to do a project about our ancestors. My ancestors are from Lithuania. She’d heard about Lithuania folk dancers, so she Googled “Lithuanian dancers” and the photos that came up were strippers. This was a class project. I’m cooking dinner. She’s on my laptop.

You talk a lot about protective factors — like sleep. What else can parents be aware of? 

My kids will tell you that it’s the most annoying thing about me. The thing is that sleep is that great example. It has this multi-pronged impact: more sleep is beneficial in a lot of ways; less sleep is a real risk factor.

Those things that were working in the pre-digital age — family dinners, listening more than talking — they are still really critical. Keeping kids busy.

It’s important to prioritize face-to-face time with friends. There are a couple reasons, and one is that it really strengthens those bonds. There’s a lot of evidence that strong friendships in adolescence are really important. They increase happiness and well-being – and our kids are fighting a losing battle against well-being. Face-to-face communication builds eye contact, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. Interpersonal communication creates empathy. You’re more responsible for the things you say when you have to observe the response – and you have that in-person.

One of the best benefits of social media is that it can help you build social capital and help you enhance friendship. That’s great, but it’s the in-person time that makes it real and meaningful.

I appreciate that you aren’t putting out blanket statements, like a specific age to give cell phones. What do you think of things like Wait Until 8th, a pledge that encourages parents to delay giving children a smartphone until 8th grade or later?

I’m for it. On the one hand, I wish everybody would wait. Life would be so much easier if we were all on the same page, like we are for things like driver’s licenses. Everyone follows the same rules.

Some kids are getting social media accounts in 4th grade, some are waiting until high school. The bottom line is, I don’t know your kid. I don’t know what’s best for you. All any of us can do it take a good, hard look at where our kids are now. Increasingly, kids are not typical. They have anxiety. They have ADHD. They have other stuff going on. We have to factor that in.

It’s a lot like when people used to ask, “Are you breastfeeding? Did you have an epidural?” You’re looking for the answer that conforms with what you’re doing. There are great parents with great kids who are making different decisions than I am.

What are some of your favorite rules around screens?

No phone in your bedroom overnight is the big one. We check in our phones. It’s the summer, so my teenagers check in phones at 10. My kids do not love that. They do stick with me on it because it’s the mountain I’m willing to die on. But it’s also the rule that causes the most conflict in my house.

My parents said, “You’ll be home at midnight because nothing that happens after midnight is good.” Well, nothing you’re doing on Snapchat at 2 a.m. is great, either. That goes for my husband and I as well.

I think another important rule around tech is to try to reinforce self-regulation as much as possible. I might say something like, “I notice you’ve been on your phone in your bed a lot today. What do you think about that?” And I’ve also had my kids say to me, “Mom, put your phone down.” I also like to consider how defensive I feel when my kids tell me to put my phone down – and hold on to the feeling, to drive a little bit of empathy.

I do feel like the tide is shifting a little bit, away from “screens must be avoided at all costs” to something a bit more measured. What is your sense of how this will all play out?

It’s funny, I have a Google alert — something like “kids,” “teens,” “adolescents,” “technology,” and “social media.” I get headlines that hit those keywords every day. Very often, in one day, I’ll see, “Social Media Is Making Kids Kill Themselves,” then another study that says, “Social Media Does Not Impact Suicide.” The same day.

The bottom line, from an evidence perspective, is the data is all over the place. We might know in 10 years. We don’t know yet. My whole thing with the book is, you might not like it, but it’s not going anywhere. Screens are part of our lives. We can hate it — or we can avoid the bad and try and take advantage of the good.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.