Interview with Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life


It all started when…

1. First, tell us a bit about your book and its inspiration—what made you want to write it? And what were you hoping to take away from your own research? 

I wrote the book because I needed a book like this! Despite being a parent who does alllll the research, I hadn't heard much that was detailed or helpful about screens, and in the mobile era, they are coming up as an issue more and more for parents even of really young children. 

2. I really like the way you've framed the book's takeaway message: "Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others." Can you expand a bit on what you mean by that last part—for example, how to put it into practice and why it's so important?

The American Academy of Pediatrics is among the authorities that stress "joint engagement" and "avoiding solo use." To put it simply, when you engage with kids around media you promote much more of their positive uses and cut down on the bad stuff. This can mean watching music videos together and dancing along; looking up a recipe or answering a science question; checking out a new app or game or simply video chatting with a relative from afar.

3. How has the process of researching and writing the book affected the way your own family interacts with screens? 

My older daughter's use has ramped up slightly during the time I've been working on the book, from ages 4 to 6. We recently adjusted the rules to give her 2 hours of video time on both Saturdays and Sundays, as well as 1 hour of iPad time, total, during the week. We are more aware of how it affects her mood. 

4. How has it affected your own relationship with screens (including your phone)? Do you have any advice for parents about how we should be monitoring—and perhaps adjusting—the way we interact with our devices in front of our children?

 I try harder to have my phone in the other room when I'm with my kids, especially during the daily races: the morning and bedtime routines. When I do take it out, I use my friend danah boyd's tip and narrate what I'm doing. "I'm going to see if your dad has texted me back." This creates transparency, and accountability. 

5. Which of the potential negative effects of screen time have the most evidence behind them? Which do you find the least convincing? Do you ever wonder whether we're focusing too much on the results of "scientific studies" and not paying enough attention to our personal observations about our kids' screen time and how it's affecting them?

My read is that the evidence is pretty strong on sleep and obesity, and in other areas there's a whole lot of confounders that make it hard to interpret the data.  
I am always advocating for parents to make decisions based on what they observe.  

6. What advice do you have for parents whose kids are begging for smartphones? (For example: what age do you think is appropriate? How should the decision be made?) And how can parents protect kids who already have smartphones from their potential negative effects (including addiction)?  

Kids are so different, I don't think it's particularly useful to specify an age. I do think it's useful to set terms in advance, like a contract or agreement that the phone will be taken away if the kid starts sneaking it at night or grades are slipping, etc. Problematic relationships with screens are something to watch out for and try to nip in the bud by making sure the kid is nourished in other areas of his / her life: friendships, relationships with caring adults, outdoor time, extracurriculars, sports, etc. 

7.  I've heard people predict that the idea of giving a 9-year-old a smartphone might eventually seem just as crazy and inappropriate as giving them a pack of cigarettes.)  Do you think that there's a chance that we'll look back at our current habits in horror?

Yes, I have absolutely made that same point, but I tend to use the analogy of cars rather than cigarettes: I hope we have great safety features coming that will enhance the useful aspects of phones while reducing the dangers.