Tune into the conversation about kids and screen time, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that before the invention of the iPhone, parents spent every waking moment engaging their kids in deep conversation, undertaking creatively expressive arts-and-crafts projects, or growing their own vegetables in the backyard garden. There’s a tendency to portray time spent away from screens as idyllic, and time spent in front of them as something to panic about.
But research shows that vilifying the devices’ place in family life may be misguided. I’ve spent the past two years conducting a series of surveys on how families manage technology, gathering data from more than 10,000 North American parents. And it turns out that the most successful strategy, far from exiling technology, actually embraces it.
My data revealed that parents could be roughly divided into three groups based on how they limit or guide their kids’ screen time, each group with its own distinct attitude towards technology. The first group is the digital enablers, whose kids have plenty of screen time and access to devices. Fueled by the hype around gadgets and apps, these parents take their cues from how other kids and families use technology. While only a third of the parents I surveyed were enablers, almost half the parents of teens adopt this approach: They’ve given in to their kids’ expertise and allow them to set the family’s tech agenda.
Digital limiters, by contrast, focus on minimizing their kids’ use of technology. This group was another third of the parents surveyed, though nearly half of parents of preschoolers take the limiting approach. Heeding widespread concerns about the impact of technology use on children’s attention spans and interpersonal relationships, limiters take every opportunity to switch off screens.
But there’s a third group of parents who recognize that if the “off” switch is the only tool parents use to shape their kids’ experience of the Internet, they won’t do a very good job of preparing them for a world in which more and more technologies are switched on every year. Digital mentors instead take an active role in guiding their kids onto the Internet. They not only make up a third of parents overall, but a little more than a third of parents in each age range—suggesting that this is an approach to digital-age parenting that can actually sustain a family long-term, from the time baby first lays her hands on a touchscreen all the way until she heads off for college.
Mentors, in fact, may be the parents who are most successful in preparing their kids for a world filled with screens, working actively to shape their kids’ online skills and experiences. A survey of more than 700 American parents from within my larger dataset found that mentors are more likely than limiters to talk with their kids about how to use technology or the Internet responsibly—something that half of mentors do at least once a week, compared to just 20 percent of limiters. They’re also more likely to research specific devices or programs for their kids: 44 percent of mentors do that at least once a week, compared to 31 percent of enablers and 14 percent of limiters. They’re also the most likely to connect with their kids through technology, rather than in spite of it: 58 percent of mentors play video games with their kids every week, compared to 42 percent of enablers and 30 percent of limiters.
That effort seems to pay off. In a survey that asked parents about where their kids get into trouble online, I found that among school-aged kids, children of limiters who are most likely to engage in problematic behavior: They’re twice as likely as the children of mentors to access porn, or to post rude or hostile comments online; they’re also three times as likely to go online and impersonate a classmate, peer, or adult. Shielding kids from the Internet may work for a time, but once they do get online, limiters’ kids often lack the skills and habits that make for consistent, safe, and successful online interactions. Just as abstinence-only sex education doesn’t prevent teen pregnancy, it seems that keeping kids away from the digital world just makes them more likely to make bad choices once they do get online.
While limiters may succeed in fostering their kids’ capacity for face-to-face connection, they neglect the fact that a huge chunk of modern life is not actually lived face-to-face. They also miss an opportunity to teach their children the specific skills they need in order to live meaningful lives online as well as off—skills like compensating for the absence of visual cues in online communications; recognizing and adapting to the specific norms of different social platforms and sub-communities; adopting hashtags, emojis, and other cues to supplement text-based communications; and learning to balance accountability with security in constructing an online identity.
None of these are skills that parents can teach to kids they insist on keeping offline, nor are they likely to be absorbed by a teen who receives his first words of parental online guidance when he is already well on his way to adulthood. We can’t prepare our kids for the world they will inhabit as adults by dragging them back to the world we lived in as kids. It’s not our job as parents to put away the phones. It’s our job to take out the phones, and teach our kids how to use them.