I was fortunate to gain insight into the problems caused by screens via my now 23-year-old stepdaughter. The internet and social media were a thing of the future when she was a small child, but I observed the power television had on her. When she watched television, it was as if her brain turned off. The screen elicited a blank stare often accompanied by mouth breathing like she was in a trance. Her attention was entirely held by whatever she was watching and any other stimulus did not register.
I realized that given a choice between viewing a screen and doing anything else, the screen was preferred. However, if television was withheld from her, it would initially result in anger and frustration, but she would ultimately find some other way to occupy herself. 100% of the time, this looked like the playing I was familiar with. While in play mode, her brain was turned on, her imagination was active, and her mood was positive. I did not have biological children at the time, but I tucked those observations away, and when I had my children, I believed limiting their access to screens was paramount.
My first biological child was born in 2007. At that time, Facebook was relatively new, having been founded in 2003. Parents were using it, but not children so much. The trend was using screens to ‘educate’ young children, and programs that ‘taught your child to read’ were targeted at moms like me. I wasn’t buying it.
My children were not allowed to watch television or any other variety of screen until they were four years old. Limiting screens became more difficult as my children left our home for school. Schools at the time were embracing digital learning as the way of the future, and this began in Kindergarten. The first time my children ever had their own screen was in 4th grade when the school loaned them a computer. My older son did not have a phone until 9th grade when I realized he was literally the only student who didn’t have one and caved. My 7th grader still does not have a phone, and I know he is in a very small minority.
My point in sharing this background is not to say that I had it figured out or that I even did well at managing screens, only that I was perhaps ahead of the general population in recognizing the danger screens posed for our children.
I have to be honest, managing these screens has made much of my parenting miserable in a way I can’t imagine it was for previous generations. This may seem dramatic, but managing my tween and teen boys’ screens feels like we have welcomed a pedophile into our home, and my job is to keep him away from the kids. He’s just over there in the corner, and oh, he has candy.
Despite my awareness and efforts, my kids don’t manage screens well. Basically, it is all they want. We have talked about screens, and as the data has caught up with my beliefs about how detrimental social media is, we have had those discussions with our sons. I have made a concerted effort to present my kids with data in hopes they would realize I’m trying to protect them and not just being ‘mean.’ Both my kids read the multi-part exposé on TikTok’s manipulative algorithms published in the Wall Street Journal, among other things. So, I’m confident their bad screen management does not come from a lack of awareness.
I have purchased every kind of parental control software. I have spent hours researching and learning to try to stay ahead of the developers in Silicon Valley. This is necessary to help my children learn to navigate this minefield independently because what I know most clearly is that they will have to resist the draw without my help eventually.
Screens are a source of anxiety and frustration for me. They require a high level of parental monitoring. Managing this mess of social media negatively affects my relationship with my children. It is a constant source of disagreement and conflict. Our home, which for previous generations was a safe space where the family could spend time together and recharge, now feels more like a place where everyone eats and then retreats to their own blue-lit corners. The outside world has invaded us, offering the good, bad, and ugly 24/7 to my kids through the internet. We never get a break. Pitifully now I feel it is a win to watch a TV show TOGETHER because you know… together.
Back in 2007, when my son was born, I felt like a fringy hippy-weirdo with all my screen avoidance. It was isolating as my kids grew up in a world where many other families allowed access to dangerous programs because parents had no data. The good news is that society is becoming more aware of the problems Silicon Valley is causing our children and families. We now have data that clearly shows the adverse effects social media and gaming have on our children, and we can make better decisions with that knowledge.
Given what we know, I wonder why Silicon Valley is allowed to get away with this. We know that the programs they are releasing are designed on purpose to make it difficult for us to resist using them. We know they are using these algorithms to make billions of dollars at our expense. We also know that they know the dangers. Many involved in Silicon Valley homeschool their kids and allow their children ZERO access to the very programs they have designed, marketed, and sold to ours! We understand that the companies designing these programs offer essentially no parental controls. Why would they, as it would eat into the precious ‘eyes on the screen metric’?
We need to realize that Silicon Valley is akin to the tobacco business. They are producing an addictive product that is hurting people, and they know it. We have the data to prove it. Why are we continuing to allow this? Think about tobacco again. Money and political influence hindered the efforts to make big tobacco accountable. It is the same now.
The FDA regulates tobacco in the US, but who regulates Silicon Valley? Who governs the digital dangers that I am fighting against every day? Why is Meta allowed to sell the Oculus, which offers children unfettered internet access and does not provide robust parental controls for their dangerous device? Heck, even guns have safeties!
Maybe we need a regulatory agency specifically for digital media: video games, social platforms, and the like. They are not going to regulate themselves. I hate more government as much as the next guy, but nobody is stepping up, and parents can’t do it alone.
We have the data. We know this is bad for our kids and us. There is no excuse for not holding those responsible for creating the problem accountable.
I’ve tried so hard and yet largely failed to impress any balanced screen regulation on my kids. I’m tired. I’m waving the white flag here. We. Need. Help. NOW.
Leslie Prior Taylor obtained her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University and her MBA from Vanderbilt University. She ‘retired’ from the medical device industry 15 years ago when her first child was born. She takes an evidence-based, solutions-minded approach to life.