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Screen time and kids: What have we learned in the last year

(CNN)  My husband and I sent our 1st and 4th graders off to their last day of in-person school one year ago this month. I kissed them and pretended not to be terribly worried about the impending surge of patients to my hospital or the sacrifices we would all have to make to flatten the curve.

As the spring of 2020 wore on, we settled into a new routine of opening up laptops and tablets to see classmates’ faces and hear teachers’ lessons. I transitioned quickly to seeing my clinic patients via telehealth and managing my research lab over Zoom.

Humans have never been so dependent on technology as we have been this past year. Some of it has been fun and brilliant, some of it an exhausting battle for my family’s attention span.

But as with any parenting experience, I see this is a teachable moment — a time when we can reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and how we need to move forward. Here are my main takeaways from this digital immersion we and our children have experienced over the past year.

“Screen time” was not a helpful concept this year. When we live our lives through technology, the unidimensional concept of time doesn’t capture how inspiring, meaningful or toxic a digital experience has been. Instead, I heard parents reflecting on these metrics of worthwhile media use:

When life is stressful, screens can be soothing. When life is busy, screens can help us feel more in control and keep kids quiet. These are not new insights, but we’ve all experienced more of it this year as parents struggle with impossible role overload during a traumatic time.

Allowing frictionless feeds to soothe us can distract from the family interactions that actually help build resilience and make meaning out of stressful times. Now is our opportunity to figure out a balance between soothing away boredom and irritability or learning strategies to manage it in other ways.

As the pandemic wears on, this might be deciding where technology “lives” in your house, and where it “sleeps” overnight, so it doesn’t invade all of your downtime. It might mean seeing a therapist to work on strategies for you and your child to handle negative emotions and conflict.

With evidence that technology platforms are trying to identify our emotions for marketing purposes, it’s more important than ever to understand our emotional relationships with our devices.

As parents, it can be difficult to build these insights into technology when it is intentionally designed to not make us think and reflect. But as we emerge from this pandemic, I would love for parents to demand more helpful, honest design in the tech products we use.

Being around our kids so much, parents have had an opportunity to peek inside our kids’ digital worlds, and it’s not always pretty. My research suggests that kids’ digital spaces provide easy access to violent, age-inappropriate and commercialized content.

There’s a lot of positive tech for kids out there, but algorithms are amplifying the garbage. Platforms elevate the most “engaging” media, amplifying the apps and videos engineered to keep kids’ attention for longer. That lets these companies make more ad dollars, even as kids find themselves not wanting to hand over their tablets — which makes parents’ jobs harder.

For now, parents need to have an active role in helping their kids search for the best content by using resources like Common Sense Media, an independent, research-based group that rates content for kids.

Profit-centered tech design is often at odds with our parenting goals. Tech companies make more ad revenue if our children watch longer into the evenings, but this is at odds with our goal of getting them a good night’s sleep. Video gaming or video-streaming websites make more ad revenue if children play or watch them throughout the day — a problem that I’ve heard from many parents managing remote schooling this year — but this is at odds with our goal of having our children learn and concentrate.

Securly, a company that monitors students’ school-issued devices and provides teacher and parent controls, shared information with me about the extent of digital distraction this year.

Its Securly Classroom program allows teachers to see what extraneous browser tabs their students have open during lesson. The company reported that the 10,168 teachers in this program closed a total of 5,789,0000 distracting tabs so far this year!

These reflections bring me to my main conclusion from watching families use technology this year: the power differential between big tech and little humans (and the exhausted parents who raise them) is too big.

It is not a fair fight to ask a child to resist a recommendations feed that has algorithmically predicted what they want to watch next.

It is not fair to ask parents whose heads are filled with other stressors to curate their children’s every move through a messy digital playground.

There is not enough consideration of children’s needs by the companies that make our kids’ entry points to the digital world or the financial incentives that determine what kids are offered first.

As a result, parents become the rule-setters and micro-managers, not the media mentors I wish we could be.

The US Congress now has the opportunity to consider child technology legislation. Members of Congress have introduced bills to update children’s online privacy protections–first conceived in the dial-up era–and address concerning design practices that keep our kids hooked on their devices and make our jobs as parents harder.

Just last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics testified before Congress to urge action, and there is finally momentum building for them to do so.

It shouldn’t be all on parents, who seem to be fighting a losing battle. It’s time we change the conversation from “screen time” and what parents need to be doing differently to what technology companies need to do better.

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