When Naomi Schaefer Riley was 2 years old, her parents rushed her to the hospital for an asthma attack. There, between breathing treatments, her father worked hard to entertain her.
"There would be bad jokes, stories from his childhood, stories from his mother's childhood, lessons about the American Revolution," she remembers.
Some 30 years later, when Riley had to take her own daughter to the ER, she found the job of being a parent much easier since "Dora the Explorer" was cavorting on a television screen in the room. "In an instant, Dora relieved me of my job of making funny faces, of assuring Emily that everything would be fine, of lying to her that no one would need to stick her with a needle."
Television and other screens have made some aspects of parenting easier, but at a tremendous cost to our children, who have been involuntarily enrolled in a "large uncontrolled experiment," says Riley, author of the new book "Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat."
Riley's concerns are shared not just by conscientious parents, but also some leaders in the field of technology, including Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive who recently said, "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works." And Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, who has said, "God only know what it's doing to our children's brains."
Meanwhile, a group of former employees of Facebook, Google and Apple have formed the Center for Humane Technology, to warn about technology addiction and advance solutions.
Riley, who has three children with her husband, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, and lives in Rye Brook, New York, said she's not against technology, but believes that even the best parents don't always notice the ways that tablets, smartphones and TVs are undermining their family.
The author of five other books, including "God on the Quad" and "The New Trail of Tears," Riley offers science-based strategies for parents who feel like they're in a tug-of-war for their children with technology.
We spoke with her about how to keep technology in its place and win back our children. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In the title of the book, "Be the Parent, Please," you seem to blame parents for children's overuse of screens. What are some of the worst examples of this that you've seen?
My son was invited to a birthday party, where a bus pulled up at the house for the kids to play video games. My son, who had just turned 8, later told me that they had played Grand Theft Auto (a violent game rated M, for 17 and older). I try not to monitor too much what my kids are doing, but I called the mother, and she said, "I told the company not to let the kids play games that are meant for adults" and I said, "Where were you? I don't understand."
Also, I was talking to a nursery school principal and I would watch mothers come up to talk with her, and within one minute, the mother would hand over the phone to their child. "Go play on this, honey," whether the kid was 1 or 4 or 7. There's no expectation that you should be able to have a minute conversation with an adult without giving (your child) your cellphone.
You write that there is a "qualitative difference" between a child who is mesmerized by a screen and one who is mesmerized by a book. What's the difference?
When you interrupt a child looking at a screen for a long time, they get extremely cranky. Turning the television off is almost like waking a child up from a nap. They're so engrossed, and it's almost a different space they have to get into in order to get out of that. The transition is different. My kids love reading, and they really want to get back to the book, but nobody gets angry if they're interrupted while they're reading a book. Reading a book allows time for pauses, time to think.
Boys are typically playing games and viewing other entertainment, studies show. Girls are using social media, taking selfies, texting. What technology does is bring the worst out in us. Girls have obviously always been social and gossipy and wanting to talk about each other. But the phone allows this to accelerate that in a way we've never seen before. You can erase graffiti that's written on a bathroom wall, but you can't erase what's being said in these social media settings.
With boys, parents were really open with me, and they worry about the violence, and they also worry about pornography. Kids that have unlimited access to the internet through their phones are going to, at a very young age, be exposed to pornography. And the average age this starts is around 10. It's not like they've never been interested in this before, or that they've never bought Playboy, but the technology expands the possibilities and provides this constant stream of access. We're taking these problems that are always there, especially for adolescents, and making them much worse.
What about technology provided by schools, as when schools provide laptops and tablets as early as elementary and middle school?
I think that we overestimate the benefits of technology. Right now, there is very little evidence that having technology in classrooms provides benefits. Schools want to show that they're preparing kids for the 21st century workforce, and parents want to see this, but nobody knows the long-term outcome. We've had this experiment now for more than 10 years with literally no improvement in performance. So the question now is, what is the technology doing? It's distracting kids. Studies have found that taking notes by hand is much more effective in terms of our ability to retain the material, so what does that say? It's not only that technology isn't adding to the educational experience, but it's actually taking away from it.
The best argument for the technology is that it provides an individualized experience in the classroom for kids who are far ahead or far behind, and the technology can help in these cases. But it's a pretty narrow space that I would make this case for.
You write that there is no evidence that technology is helping children educationally, but you also share an anecdote about your son, who was able to identify the location of all 50 states on a blank map — at age 4 — after a few weeks of playing a game on an iPad. Isn't that a contradiction?
It was a neat party trick, and it's fun for little kids to see the exploding things when they get an answer right. But in my own house, I don't distinguish between educational screen time and other screen time. There are so many things I'd rather my kids be doing — read a book, play outside, talk to your friend. It ranks so far down, this little bit of learning that may or may not last. I'm not trying to ban technology; I just want people to think about what we're giving up.
First, consistency is very important. If you feel, as most of the parents I talked to feel, that your kid is on screens too much, then you need a system, especially in the beginning when you're trying to form these habits. You can say, for example, that you have screen time between 6:30 and 7 and then you give it back to me. And you can't make exceptions. If you do, the kids will know there are exceptions, and then ask you again and again. In our house, we have no screen time during the week.
My second piece of advice is to ask yourself what our parents or grandparents did in a situation. The most common reason parents have for giving their child a phone is so they can reach them when they need to be picked up. But our parents did not act like Uber. Our parents gave us a watch and said "I'll meet you outside at 5 o'clock, and no disaster befell us, generally speaking. If something went wrong, we talked to an adult and said, "Excuse me, I need to use your phone to contact my parents."
Another thing is, if you think your child is in a situation where they must have a screen, that also tells us something important. For example, if you're at a fancy restaurant for an hour, and the only way your children can behave themselves is to have an iPad, then maybe the kids shouldn't be in that restaurant.
Is there anything that you wish you could take back and do differently with your own children?
I was never going to be a parent who turned on the television all the time, but I let my oldest watch one show every night, and it became the focus of everything and drove me up the wall. I said no TV on weeknights when my youngest was a baby. The older they are when you make these rules, the harder the adjustment is. But parents need to have more confidence in their kids' ability to make their own entertainment. Even with children under the age of 2, if you give them a bunch of toys and put them in a safe place, they'll figure it out. If they get used to TV, they won't figure it out.