In this episode, we discuss:
- Recent trends in screen time in kids and its growth since the pandemic
- The physical and developmental risks of excess screen time in kids
- How screen overuse can impair the development of empathy
- Creating evidence-based guidelines for screen time in different age groups
- How child-targeted marketing shapes behavior and development in kids and the importance of “a childhood without brands”
- Why screen time and kids is a systemic problem and the advocacy and legislative efforts that Fairplay is working on to address this issue
- Resources that parents can use to help their kids have a healthier relationship with technology
- Children Screen Time Action Network
- Fairplay for Kids
- Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
- Reset Your Child’s Brain by Dr. Victoria Dunckley
- Wait Until 8th
- Soul Shoppe
- Center for Humane Technology
- Children and Nature Network
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser [here]. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. I’ve been concerned about the impact of excess screen time on kids and teens for many years. And that concern has increased over the past few years as I’ve learned more about the potentially harmful impacts of excess screen use in these age groups, as I’ve seen trends continue to increase in terms of the amount of time that kids and teens are spending on screens, and [as I’ve] learned more about the tactics that social media companies and technology firms use to maximize kids’ use of screens, profit from their attention, and create an entire business model around getting kids to engage in what I think are unhealthy ways with content on social media.
I’m really excited to welcome Jean Rogers as my guest for this week. She is the director of the Screen Time Action Network, and she is also on the staff of Fairplay, which is an organization that advocates for childhood beyond brands. We’ll talk about what that means in the show. Jean uses screen time research to help parents and professionals reduce children’s screen time and promote creative play. We’re going to talk in this episode about why excess screen time is a problem for kids, what the most recent trends are in terms of the growth of screen time in kids and teens, what some of the physical impacts of screen overuse are, what people should know about the long-term benefits of moderating screen time, why children’s technology use is a public health issue and not just an individual issue for parents or kids, [which] I think is a really important point that we need to recognize and rally behind, how child-targeted marketing contributes to excess screen time and the other issues that type of marketing can cause, and what steps parents can take to help their kids have a healthier relationship with technology and screens in this environment that we live in today where screens are ubiquitous.
I’m not coming in[to] the show from the perspective of we should get rid of screens entirely. [I] recognize that they’re part of our lives, and there are many amazing qualities of technology and screen use that kids can implement to make their lives better and to prepare themselves for life in the 21st century. I’m not a Luddite, and I am interested in exploring how our kids can create healthier relationships with screens, and in particular, how we can change business models and public health policy so that our kids are not being manipulated by these global brands that have neuro-hacking brain scientists on staff that are creating algorithms that will maximize our kids’ use of screens and make it very difficult for them to resist. So that’s going to be part of the conversation.
I think this is a really important topic for any parent, and I hope you enjoy the show. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Jean Rogers, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.
Jean Rogers: Thank you so much, Chris, for having me.
Chris Kresser: I’d like to begin with talking about the recent trends in screen time in kids. This is an issue I’ve talked a lot about on my podcast over the last several years, but I haven’t really done a deep dive in the last year, in terms of the trends. Is screen time in kids continuing to go up? Has it plateaued? Is it going down? What’s happening now, in terms of the latest statistics?
Recent Trends in Screen Time in Kids
Jean Rogers: We knew that the pandemic caused huge increases. I’m sure you’ve talked about that, as well. There was a Pew study in 2020 that was called “Parenting Children in the Age of Screens,” and two-thirds of parents said [that] parenting is harder than it was 20 years ago, and they blamed screens and social media [as] the reason. A repeat study happened in 2021, and 72 percent of them shared that kids were spending more time on the devices and that they as parents were less strict about the non-schoolwork time that they were having. Of course, they had to be, with what they were dealing with.
Chris Kresser: Right. You had a number of parents who were home, not in the office, not working, [and] their kids were not in school, which they typically would have been. So they were in a really tight spot. They had to figure out a way to navigate that, and kids being on a screen, whether they were doing school-related activities, or ostensibly doing school-related activities and actually doing something else, [is] very difficult to monitor, especially if you as the parent are at home trying to get work done yourself.
Jean Rogers: Absolutely. We saw an increase in video games, more time on smartphones, [and] more time on video games. These were huge, like 20 percent [and] 40 percent increases from prior to the pandemic. And we’re not seeing those trends roll back now that we’re more [out] in public. We’re seeing that habits are formed, and that’s probably a lot of what we’ll talk about today is how these habits are formed developmentally in kids and in families and what things we can do to abate that.
Chris Kresser: I think that’s a crucial point, and we’ve seen this in other aspects of post-COVID life, where the shifts happened because of COVID[-19], but some of them seem to be permanent, or at least longer-term than something that might pivot back after the lockdowns ended and people are able to go back to the office. We see that in demographic trends, where people are living, how they’re working, etc. It seems like screen time is definitely part of that.
I also want to say this from the top, [and] I think you and I agree on this, that throughout this episode, we’re going to be talking about screen time in kids and steps parents can take to create healthier boundaries and mitigate some of those impacts. I want to be clear that I think that this is not just an individual problem. This is not just a parenting issue. This is a systemic problem that we’re all facing and we’re all struggling with. As you’ve pointed out, it’s a public health issue. It’s not just a question of individual parents making different choices. We have to create systemic solutions [like] public health policy shifts in social media and online business models to make it easier for parents to create these healthier boundaries and healthier relationships, because we can’t do it on our own as parents. This is not an indictment of individual parents. It’s a recognition that we’re facing some really deeply entrenched society-wide issues here.
Jean Rogers: We are, Chris. The first thing I tell parents when I give workshops is, “Ditch the guilt.” Because there’s enough to be guilty about in parenting, and there’s a lot of guilt and shame around how much screen time [you] use with [your] kids, and, “Am I doing the right thing by them?” The system is set up against you. The manipulation and the persuasive design on children’s apps and in children’s media is beyond your control. We don’t want parents to feel guilty and we’re doing what we can to support those systemic changes.
Chris Kresser: I totally agree. Since we touched on that, let’s linger on that for a bit because I’ve watched [The] Social Dilemma twice and I’ve talked about it a lot on the show, and I had Tim Kendall on as a guest. What I really appreciated about that show is that it lifted the veil and showed us how intentional and explicit the attempts are by these multinational corporations that run the social media platforms to maximize not only our kids’ attention, but all of our attention. Specifically for kids, the algorithms have been developed by brain hackers and neuroscientists who understand how to hook kids in and how to create algorithms in such a way that they will maximize engagement at the time where the child is feeling the most vulnerable.
One of the phrases that really stuck with me from The Social Dilemma is “it’s not a fair fight.” We have each individual kid, with their naturally hardwired biological mechanisms, dopamine reward systems, [and] all the things that helped us survive in a natural environment, versus corporations that are worth billions and billions of dollars that have a whole team of scientists trying to maximize attention. It’s really not a fair fight, and it’s not realistic to assume that we can just empower individuals to overcome that on their own.
Jean Rogers: You’re hired. Would you like to join my staff? I’m so pleased to actually hear you repeating these messages because we really [want] awareness. With The Social Dilemma, we were able to stop saying it so many times and just tell people, “Go watch that film, come back, and we’ll work on this together.” We were so relieved. We worked quite a bit with the Center for Humane Technology and The Social Dilemma outreach team to get this messaging out that persuasive design is baked into everything. Advertising is baked into everything. It’s profit driven, not kid driven. What we are doing at Fairplay is supporting comprehensive legislation like KOSA, the Kids Online Safety Act, [which is] probably the most important bill to pay attention to right now. It will make those tech companies accountable. It requires them to have a duty of care in the best interest of minors, and it will limit the harmful content that they’re exposed to. We can’t count on these companies for self-regulation.
Risks of Excess Screen Time in Kids
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that much is clear. I think history has proven that over and over. With this in mind, recognizing that this is not an individual problem, it’s a societal problem, what do we know about the various risks of excess screen time in kids? We have different categories of physical effects, mental, behavioral, and emotional effects. We’ve got things like cyberbullying; we’ve got sexual predation and the risks involved there. If we break this down into broader categories, how is the research coalesced up until today in terms of these potential harms?
Jean Rogers: I like to simplify [it] for people and divide it into two categories. I call [them] physical and developmental, and all those—the emotional, the cognitive, everything—falls into the developmental area for kids. We see teens and young adults impacted, and they still have developing brains. In the physical realm, we are seeing quite a bit of risk to [their] eyes. Myopia at very young ages; ophthalmologists will tell you more and more kids [are] getting glasses younger and younger, but also something even scarier, which is macular degeneration, even in teens. This is an elderly disease, and we’re now seeing it in very young people. Obviously, [there is an] increase in overweight and diabetic children. That’s something that we’ve been watching for many years, but it’s increasing. [There are also] speech and language delays. We work closely with [the] American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and they say [that] for every hour of screen time in infancy, they see language delays at three years of age. Sometimes when we have a baby [who’s] in front of a screen, we’re not thinking about [the] impact that it might have three or four years down the road when they’re a preschooler or kindergartener and having speech and language delays that we have to address. Those are a few of the physical [effects].
Then in the developmental area, children can miss milestones or [have] what we call displacement. The time in front of screens is displacing other time that they really, really need. A couple of things that I’ll mention are [that] they need key bonding time with parents. This can create attachment disorders when they don’t have a lot of face time with caring adults. And those bonding issues can create [probems]. This is how children feel safe in the world [and] how they’re able to move forward, by having the attachment with the caring adults. With much time on screens and even with parental time on screens, they’re missing a lot of that face time and that language development that we see.
Then with cyberbullying, we’re addressing that in our Cyberbullying and Online Safety Work Group. Much of it is, I’ll just loop back to the companies that we just discussed in The Social Dilemma, driven by profit. The bullies are also able to get so much out there, and the bullying comes home with them. Whereas bullying used to stay at school, now it’s on the bus with you, it’s at home with you, [and] it’s [often] in bed. Some of these companies have been quoted as saying in marketing reports, “Our biggest competition is sleep.” And we know sleep is another thing that kids are sorely missing.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and the implications of that are profound and diverse, affecting pretty much every system of the body and the brain. There’s more and more research now on the impacts of sleep deprivation, chronically, both in adults and children. I see new studies published on this virtually every week. That’s definitely one of my biggest concerns.
I’m aware of some research that’s been done on screens and the development of empathy, where looking for too long at a two-dimensional screen may impair the development of empathy. I don’t know if that’s been fleshed out or revisited or if that’s something that you’ve come across, as well.
Screens and the Development of Empathy
Jean Rogers: We have a partner called Soul Shoppe, [and] they do empathy education in schools. They have pointed to that fact you’re talking about, which is the two-dimensional life that children are growing up in. Also, the content that they’re seeing can be swaying them one way or the other, can be conditioning them to less empathy, [and] they’re not making that eye contact like we talked about earlier. Another really important thing for empathy training is time in nature. Children having time with animals, having time growing vegetables, [and] having time in a park [have all] been proven through our friends at Children and Nature Network to improve empathy. When all these pieces are missing, we’re missing a big piece of what’s [important]. As we’re talking about this, it occurs to me, looping back to public health, [that] these children are going to be our leaders. What we do with them today, tomorrow, next week, next month, [is] shaping them for being able to problem-solve. We have big problems [that] we need this generation to solve. So we have to be careful [about] how we’re shaping them now.
Chris Kresser: That’s such a good point. I’m reading a book called Stolen Focus right now, which is a lot about that. The chapter I just finished was about the decline of reading long-form content, both nonfiction and fiction, but particularly fiction. There’s really interesting research showing that when kids or adults read fiction, that contributes to the development of empathy. Because when you read a story, whether it’s told from the first person or the third person, you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be in their world, whether you’re reading an account of being a slave 200 years ago in this country, or whether you’re reading about someone in a completely different culture. You’re spending days or weeks deeply immersed in that world; you’re really engaging with it and grappling with it and thinking about it, and [having] a linear relationship with the characters in that world that leads to a type of understanding of the human condition that you don’t get with the social media frame, where generally, the interactions are shallower, they’re shorter, [and] you’re going from one thing to the next more quickly. There’s [a] whole polarization that has happened on social media, and you don’t get that [same] experience that you get from reading long-form content.
The author’s point was exactly what you just mentioned, [that] all the problems we’re facing today, whether they’re individual or societal, require sustained attention to solve. What happens when we have an entire society of people, and I would include adults in this category, as well, who are less able to focus and sustain attention over time? That’s one of the greatest concerns that I have about excess screen time in kids, and adults for that matter.
Jean Rogers: I had the opportunity to interview Johann Hari for our Action Network Live! webinars series. The book was life-changing for me, as well. I think that a piece about going from one thing to the next quickly is what we call sort of the colloquial [attention deficit disorder] (ADD). We all say, “I have ADD, I have ADD,” but we know it exacerbates some of the physical symptoms in children with ADD and [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder] (ADHD) to have that fast-paced screen time. In fact, our advisory board member Dr. Victoria Dunckley has written a book, Reset Your Child’s Brain, which I highly recommend for anyone who feels they might really want to get a handle on the ADD piece. She puts [children] on a four-week hiatus from screens. Then when they come back in, she brings them back with some traditional TV because it didn’t have as many of those fast-paced pieces to it. Watching a family movie, that kind of thing, was very different [from] what we see on the apps.
Also, I want to comment, yes, Johann Hari is an English major, [and] so was I [for] undergrad. And they tell us [that] because we read so much fiction, we have more common sense. That’s another thing that we want to see in our next generation is a lot of common sense. We see how the division in society can sometimes revolve around the lack of common sense.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. And I want to touch on something you mentioned, which is that not all media has the same effect. I remember from Stolen Focus, he mentioned that long-form television series have some of the same benefits as reading fiction because you get that same linear, deep engagement over a longer period of time, which helps to develop empathy and understand people. Whereas watching three-minute YouTube videos, or scrolling through an Instagram feed or doing something like that does not have that benefit because it’s moving from one thing to the next quickly, and you’re not really engaging with it. That might be something that would help a parent shape what types of media they expose their kids to. Watching a family movie, like you said, or watching an extended, longer-form TV series might be a better option than giving your young child access to Instagram or some platform like that.
Jean Rogers: Yes, definitely. That’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calls co-viewing, and there are multiple benefits to that. Not only is it long-form, so developmentally, it’s better for kids, but co-viewing allows you to understand the content. If a kid is lost in their mobile device, it’s harder for you to understand or keep tabs on what they’re doing, what the content is, and whether it might not agree with your values. It might be violent, [or] it might be somehow disturbing to the child. [By] watching something together, you’re able to see what they’re doing. Also, it promotes family discussion. We are really big on screen-free dinners [and] screen-free meals, whenever it’s possible. Sometimes it’s not. But whenever it’s possible, then that becomes a point of family discussion—that long-form TV series or movie [that] we might have seen together [where] those characters have depth to them. We discuss how that applies to someone else we know in life or a friend they met at school. Maybe they had a similar kind of argument with a friend, and you’re able to say, “Oh look, remember what happened in that film?” So, [it] promotes family conversation.
Evidence-Based Guidelines for Screen Time
Chris Kresser: I love that. Let’s expand this topic. So far we’ve been using the phrase “excess screen time” without really defining what that is. I know that it varies [between] different age groups, and I also know that the guidelines have changed. For example, I think [that] the American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend no screen time at all under age two, and a much lower amount from ages two to six, or whatever. And they’ve recently changed those guidelines. I wonder if you could talk about what the evidence-based guidelines are now for different age groups. Then a side question would be, sometimes when guidelines are changed, the changes are not evidence-based. They’re politically driven, or, maybe just like, “Hey, well, we recognize that people aren’t following these guidelines, so we’re going to change them to make them seem a little bit more accessible.” I’m curious what [any recent] changes have been driven by. If they’ve actually been driven by research that has told us it’s safer to expand the guidelines, or [if] it’s been more along the lines of a politically motivated change.
Jean Rogers: That’s a very interesting question, Chris. The new American Academy of Pediatrics guideline for no screen time is under 18 months now. I can’t speak to exactly why that was changed, but I would not call it as much politically changed as culturally changed. Our leaders in this field are aware of what parents are up against and what’s realistic, so there are changes that they’ve made in the guidelines. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be thoughtful about how you add screen time to your child’s life and have different guidelines for your family at home. What we say is, “Delay, delay, delay.” And that might mean a different number of years [or] different number of months for different families. We respect [that] everyone has a different situation. But we have partners, Wait Until 8th, that recommend not giving your child a cell phone until eighth grade. That way, they’re more on the common computer at home doing their homework, [or] they’re on the TV, like we said, and those more community-driven platforms.
Delaying is really a good rule of thumb. It’s also great to create a family media plan, which we have several of in our resource library at the Screen Time Action Network. Delaying in the early years and then being thoughtful about how you add it in is really tricky. We have another resource, one of our most popular and my favorite, called Dear Parents. If you have teens, you know there’s a power struggle around these issues. The worst thing to say to a teen is, “Shut that thing off.” We get really frustrated with our teens, and we just want them in our life more than in their screens.
Chris Kresser: It seems that there’s so much there to unpack, and part of it is the cultural fabric or context that we all live in, right? If you’re a parent, and you have a 10- or 11-year-old kid, a lot of the other 10- or 11-year-old kids that they’re going to be hanging out with have phones, and phones are now a big part of social life. Then you have seemingly small but significant changes like [that] there are no more payphones, and there [is] often not [even] a landline that a kid can use if they want to call their parent from somewhere. There are these challenges that make it even more difficult to follow through with if a parent has the intention [that], “I’m going to delay giving my child a phone until a certain age.” You’re swimming upstream, basically. We have an 11-year-old daughter, [and] she does not have a phone, or any digital device that’s her own, and we’ve run into this ourselves where it’s sometimes difficult for her to make contact with us. When I was growing up, I would just put a quarter in a payphone and call my parents, or I would ask wherever I was if I could use their phone, and they would pick up their landline and give it to me. Of course, some people are willing to do that with their mobile phones, but it’s different. It’s different than it was even 15 years ago, [and] much different than it was 30 years ago. It seems to me that kids and parents face an uphill battle there.
Jean Rogers: I agree, Chris, and I think a lot of parents are concerned. In addition to just regular contact, they’re concerned about safety issues, so they want their child to have a phone. The nice thing about the Wait Until 8th program is [that] it’s peer driven. Your child’s whole class needs to sign up, and that way, the parents have peers who are raising kids with the delay, and the kids have peers. We can’t ask our kids to go it alone, and we can’t go it alone, either. Because we’ll be very unpopular with our kids and with our neighbors. I remember being very unpopular with one of my neighbors around this issue. With regards to the safety issue, there are phones that don’t go out onto the internet, like the Gabb phone. And I heard there’s a new one, [but] I can’t remember the name of it. I think as more awareness is spreading of these problems and [of] The Social Dilemma and programs like this, that there will be more manufacturers wanting to support safer use of devices by children.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, the Gabb phone, and there’s also a Gabb watch, which I’ve looked at. They’re interesting and I think they’re doing a lot well. Like you said, there’s no app store, so the kid can’t download apps, they can’t go on a web browser, [and] they can’t get on Instagram. They basically do text and phone, music, camera, and a few other basic functions like that. I think that, at least with the watch, I’m not sure about the phone, [as] the parent, you have a back-end interface where you can set hours of use for those devices. So let’s say you only want your child to have access to them between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., before dinner. You could set it up so that they only can use it during that period of time. They don’t have access during school hours, [and] they’re not able to use it at 10:00 p.m. when they should be sleeping. I think that seems to be a step in the right direction at least, and one reasonable compromise for parents [who] are concerned about safety or who want their child to be able to communicate with their friends, but don’t want the influence of social media and the corporate brands.
Parents face an increasingly uphill battle to preserve an analog childhood in the digital age. Tune into this episode of Revolution Health Radio to learn ways that you can reduce your kids’ time on digital devices and mitigate the dangers of screen overuse. #chriskresser #kids #technology
Jean Rogers: Absolutely. I think it’s easier on you as a parent to employ something like that. You’re not worried about where they’re going on the internet; you’re not worried about all the privacy policies that are not written for you to understand. They’re very difficult. You have to review all of them. But if you don’t have them on the phone, it’s a start.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, that makes sense to me. A big part of Fairplay’s mission is “a childhood without brands.” That’s the tagline, in fact, and we’ve touched on a few times in this conversation how child-targeted marketing contributes to excess screen time. Can you say a little bit more about that part of the mission? Why is it important to have a childhood without brands? How does branding and marketing to kids influence their use of screens?
Childhood Without Brands
Jean Rogers: Great question. We just celebrated one year with our new name, Fairplay. We used to be called Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. That was a mouthful, as you can see. But also, we wanted to simplify and be able to incorporate different parts of our mission. We still are very passionate about childhood without brands, which is why it’s our tagline. Brands shape behavior in many, many ways. Manipulation and exploitation of those different developmental stages [that] we talked about earlier is built into most of these apps, and many of the apps are brand driven. I could explain some of [the manipulation], but I don’t think we have enough time today. That could be part two of this conversation. We see this all the time, brands trying to develop lifetime loyalty. I don’t know if you remember the Super Bowl Budweiser ad where the child has lost the dog, and then the dog comes back on the farm? The children who see that ad [while] watching the Super Bowl with their families love that dog, they love that the dog came back to the kid, and they see the logo. They’re not drinking beer yet, but that brand says, “I’m getting those kids who are watching the Super Bowl with their family to love Budweiser at a certain age.” The brands are driving behavior from an early age in that way.
They’re also driving behavior on social media. The ads are sometimes very popular items, right next to the game the child’s playing, [or] right next to the interaction that they’re having with a friend. In fact, we have one of our researchers working on the topic of obesity, which overlaps with what we were talking about earlier, [and] how it’s shaped by how many food brands children interact with online. Some of the games, we call them “advergames.” They’re M&Ms games or Burger King games, and they’re free. But they’re not free because children are being lured into buying those products and thinking that they’re healthy when they’re not. So we see it in many ways, shaping the character and the development of the child.
Chris Kresser: This was a major takeaway from [The] Social Dilemma, that the business model of social media, in and of itself, promotes excess screen use. So many of the services and platforms are offered for “free,” [and] we think we’re the customers of those companies and platforms. But we are, in fact, the product. They sell advertising on the basis of our usage of the product. So the more they can encourage and increase usage, the more advertising they can sell, and the more money they make. This is true not only for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and platforms like that, it’s also true for almost any app that a kid might download from the app store. They’re free, with in-app purchases or with in-app ads, so then a child is playing a math game or something that’s educational, but they’re being shown ads throughout the time that they’re interacting with that educational app. It seems to me a thorny problem because we’ve all been conditioned to get things for free, [and] to be able to use these platforms like Instagram and Facebook or Gmail or whatever without paying for them. That’s an expectation now, but there’s a huge trade-off with that model that many of us are not even fully aware of and that our kids are subject to, as well.
Jean Rogers: They sure are, and most of those games have levels. They want to bring the child back to get to the next level [and] the next level. The in-app purchases are extremely concerning. We have a new campaign on loot boxes, if you’re familiar with those, which are items in a game, sort of like a treasure chest that a child buys, to compete with a friend [or] to make it to the next level. They don’t know what they’re buying inside the loot box. It may be something that can get them to the next level; it may not. So, the idea of virtual currency is also a concern. One thing I like to remind people is [that] 20 [or] 30 years ago, you had to have a paycheck to be considered a consumer. Now kids are considered consumers from birth. Kids are targeted from birth, essentially, to be in a buy-buy situation.
The in-app purchases create a vagueness about money for them so that they’re not even buying something concrete. Some of the things we see in the younger children’s apps are [that] they can go into [a] free app with trusted characters like Caillou or Clifford the Big Red Dog or Curious George, and they can play a couple of modules of the game and [get] really excited about it, and then the other [modules] are locked until they purchase it. Other kinds of manipulation that we see are characters [that] cry [if you don’t buy them what they want]. This is really manipulating a child’s emotions.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and again, this is not an individual problem. Kids are understandably relatively defenseless in the face of those kinds of methods because they’re targeting basic hardwired human emotions and responses that are perfectly appropriate in the normal world. If someone cries, we want a child to have empathy for that person and respond in that way. Yet, in this context, it’s being used as a manipulation to buy something [and] not to actually elicit a real human response for real human reason. So [that’s] tremendously concerning. I want to shift now to talking about some of the ways that Fairplay and the other organizations that you’re involved with are working on a larger scale to address this problem at the government level, cultural level, [and] public health policy level. Talk about some of the phenomenal resources that you offer for parents as a way of helping them create these healthier boundaries and relationships with kids and screens.
Fairplay’s Advocacy Efforts
Jean Rogers: We work, as I mentioned, on a legislative level with the Kids Online Safety Act, and we support other bills across the country [like California Assembly Bill] 2408. We’re able to bring in our experts to testify, and we’re able to work with our legislators to get safety online for children, both in the privacy aspect, and in the manipulation aspect that we’re discussing today. We also will go after companies. We’re a watchdog. We’re concerned about the gamification of our education system and curriculum. One example of what we’re doing with that is a product called Prodigy in school. It’s a math game. They’re also creating a similar literature and English version of it. It has levels, just like we’re talking about. It has a free version, and then it has a paid version. If your family cannot afford the paid version, you are literally playing in the mud online versus the children who are playing at the top of the mountain. We’re very concerned at how widespread Prodigy is getting in schools, and we’re watching out for products like that, [which] might be trying to manipulate many of our children on a wide scale.
At the Screen Time Action Network, we have seven Work Groups that address different topics. [One] of our most active Work Groups [is] the Cyberbullying and Online Safety Work Group. That one is made up of several parents who have lost children to cyberbullying incidents or have had a very negative experience with social media and their children. Our public health experts and data privacy experts who are in that Work Group assisting them are also supporting legislation [and] working to get companies to listen [and] understand what’s happening to their precious children.
Chris Kresser: That’s really helpful. I applaud the work that you’re doing, and I imagine that some people listening to this might want to support it. What are the types of opportunities, whether volunteering or contributing financially, for people to support the work that you’re doing?
Jean Rogers: We are at ScreentimeNetwork.org and we’re a global collaborative. We have about 2000 members globally now. [As] a member, you’re able to access the resource library, [which] is free. You’re able to access our News You Can Use. We curate four articles each week on children and screens. We know it’s hard to keep up with this, so we’d like to help people. If you’re doing work in preventing screen overuse in children or you would like to, you’re able to join one of our work groups. Those work groups meet to create smaller communities within our larger global network.
One of the reasons that we started was we realized [that] people doing this work or concerned about children and screens were feeling isolated or feeling like, “I’m the only person in my organization who’s concerned about this. I’m the only person in my school who’s worried about this.” We come together [as] like-minded individuals and we collaborate on projects—often resource creation or advocacy projects. So you’re able to join a working group, you’re able to see what’s going on a little bit more, and you’re able to donate to ScreentimeNetwork.org so that we can stay on top of the many, many issues. It’s not one thing, Chris. It’s not just what we talked about with eyesight. It’s not just obesity. It’s not just developmental delays. It’s all of this. It seems as though we [get] one win and something new comes up. So it’s really important that we’re able to stay on top of what’s happening with children and screens.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. What about resources for parents? You mentioned a few throughout the conversation, and we’ll put links to those in the show notes. Where would you recommend somebody start if they want to get an idea of what’s available to help them work on this with their kids?
Resources for Parents
Jean Rogers: Going to the Resource Library tab at ScreentimeNetwork.org will bring you to many, many resources. You’re able to search, and we also have some filters. So, if you have children ages three to five, there are resources there for that. You can search by age, [or] you can search by concern. If you are worried [that] maybe your child is overusing video games. We like to say “overuse.” People say “addiction,” [but] we like to say “overuse” because it may not be [an] addiction. We kind of use that term colloquially now. But there are resources for that and many, many other areas at ScreentimeNetwork.org. One of my favorites, that I think I mentioned, is our resource Dear Parents, which really helps get that power struggle out of the conversation with teens about their smartphones. That’s a big, big issue in many families.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. I think it’s worth pointing out that kids are very good at mimicking or adopting their parents’ behavior. I know personally, and just [from] talking to lots of people I’ve worked with over the years, that we can’t expect our kids to moderate their use if we’re not also bringing awareness and attention to how we use devices. Kids are pretty savvy, and they pay a lot more attention to what we do than what we say. That’s a big part of the equation.
Jean Rogers: [There are] a couple of things we recommend with that, especially with young children. It’s great to narrate your use when you’re using your phone. Because you may have to check your work email, but if the child knows, “I’m just checking my work email for five minutes, and then we’re going to go read that book and then we’re going to go outside,” [then] they know you’re not just wasting time on there ignoring them [and] that you have to have a specific use for it. That’s another thing I encourage conversation about: What are we using them for? Are we using them for education to learn something new together? Are we using it for entertainment? Are we using it to connect? One of the other things that the AAP says is fine and good is video chats with relatives [who] are far away or with a deployed military parent. So there are good uses for screens. We’re not here saying put them all away. We’re just saying [to] think about how you’re using them and explain that to the kids.
Chris Kresser: One of the things we’ve done, with varying levels of success depending on the time period, is create screen-free rooms in the house like the living room or the kitchen, which are the places we spend the most time. So those rooms are dedicated to, in the case of the kitchen, cooking and eating, and just hanging out and chatting, and in the living room, reading or playing games or things like that. If something needs to be done on a device, we have to get up and walk over to another space to do that. Of course, depending on someone’s living situation, they may not have that luxury, but that’s been a simple but pretty effective way of mitigating screen use as a family and making it clear that there are places where we want to interact without that interaction being mediated by a screen.
I’ve seen studies that suggest that even having a phone out and in sight can change the quality of an interaction. Let’s say you’re at the dinner table, and you’re not using your phone, but it’s sitting on the table next to you. Chances are, your eyes are going to naturally go down to the phone and it’s going to change the quality of that interaction you’re having. Or if it’s out sitting on the living room coffee table or something like that. So even seemingly subtle changes can make a big difference.
Jean Rogers: Some of the studies also say that even if that phone is off, it changes the nature of your interaction because you’re still thinking about what might be there, what might be waiting for you on the phone. It definitely has an anticipatory effect there. One of the things I also recommend to parents is [that] when the kids are on a screen and you’re thinking about their content, use a concept called “bridging,’ which is [that] whatever content is on the screen, they can take off the screen and do. During the pandemic, we saw kids learn how to cook, and it was really fun. They were able to learn it on screen, and then do it off screen. Teaching your dog to roll over, whistle with a blade of grass, any fun thing that they can learn on the screen, then they can take off the screen. They learn [that] the whole world isn’t in there; it’s everywhere.
Chris Kresser: That’s a great point. Related to that, and this comes more from Cal Newport’s work, which I love, [is] in one of his books where he takes people through a 30-day period of screen restriction. One of his main points, which I really agree with, is [that] you won’t be successful if it’s just about deprivation and removing something. Because most of us don’t like to be deprived, and we will fight back against that, even if we’re the ones depriving ourselves. We see this, of course, in dieting and all kinds of different areas. Whereas if you create a strong intention for what you want to move toward, or what you want to add to your life, what you want to do more of, a new hobby that you want to develop, maybe you want to be able to spend more time doing deep work, [or] you want to spend more time with your family in relationships, setting a goal or an intention that is positive and that you want to move toward will generally lead to more success than just saying, “I want to cut out screen time” or “I want to do less of this,” because then you get into that “what you resist, persists” dynamic, and it tends to be less successful.
Jean Rogers: I agree. Most of our family media plans are focused around setting goals like that for what we want to do. Discussing, “What are our values as a family?” Maybe we’re a real outdoor family and we love camping and we love swimming, and those things are really important to us. Let’s make sure we’re getting enough of that. Maybe we’re a church family or a faith-driven family. Maybe it’s really important that we participate in a faith community. If those things [happen] first, it’s eliminating time for the screen rather than cutting it out. The AAP Family Media Plan works that way. You do it online, and you can actually see how much time you’re allocating for these things. You can see the screen time bar go down, down, down. It’s pretty cool. And some of our other plans are focused that way, as well.
Chris Kresser: Great. Jean, thanks so much for this conversation. As we finish up here, can you just repeat some of the links you’ve mentioned earlier where people can go to learn more?
Jean Rogers: Yes, please come and join us at ScreentimeNetwork.org. We welcome members—parents, professionals, anyone who’s concerned about this issue. Membership is free, and we hope to always keep it that way. Come to ScreentimeNetwork.org to find some great resources at our resource library. Check out the Work Groups if you’d like to do more. Go to FairplayForKids.org to learn more about our legislative efforts and our work with large corporations to try to mitigate some of the problems that we’ve talked about today.
Chris Kresser: Well, thank you, again. [This is] such an important issue, and I really am grateful for the work that you and all your colleagues are doing in raising awareness on this and helping everyone understand that this is a public health issue at the same level as diet and nutrition and the need to become less sedentary and move more and things like smoking cessation. This has every bit as big of an impact on our health and well-being as individuals and as a society, if not more so, than some of these other issues that we commonly recognize as public health questions that we need to address together as a culture. So again, [I] really appreciate the work you’re doing. Thank you for joining me.
Thanks, everybody, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. We’ll see you next time.
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