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The Connected Parent
An Expert Guide to Parenting in a Digital World
By John Palfrey
By Urs Gasser
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GROWING UP IN A HYPERCONNECTED WORLD
JAMIE, AGE FOURTEEN, wakes up around 6:30 a.m. on school days. The first thing she does is reach for her phone, the one that’s buzzing to wake her up. It’s on the floor right beside her bed.
Her eyes only half-open, Jamie flips through a series of applications that indicate she’s got messages. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. School email can wait till later. (As she often explains to her mom, email is what adults use—it’s not for kids.) One Snap story catches her attention. She gets pulled into the narrative and from there into other stories. She loses track of time as she scrolls. It’s thirty minutes later before she makes her way to the shower.
Smartphone back in hand, Jamie spends breakfast flipping through her Insta feed. On the bus to school, earbuds in, listening to music, she plays games until she arrives. The school day doesn’t involve too much screen time in the classroom, but every break spent walking through the hallways allows for a check of her phone and her various feeds.
After school, she’s at the library for an hour or so, online for a research project. By late afternoon, she’s on a friend’s couch, each of them on their phones, chatting with friends elsewhere, listening to music together. She comes home, and her phone is still out during a quick dinner. Jamie turns to Netflix in the evening, bingeing on her favorite show of the moment (reruns of The Office). Her mom comes into her room at 11:00 p.m. to tell her to shut down her computer and go to bed. Jamie objects but eventually gives in, and she’s asleep by midnight.
Does Jamie’s routine sound excessive? Actually, her daily screen exposure is probably below average for a teenager in the United States. If her total media usage is under nine hours a day, she’s below the norm in this country today. Yet her relationships with other young people and the outside world, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, are mediated by technology.
THE IMAGE OF a young person staring into a smartphone is a sign of the times. Adults are no different. This image will be one of the most enduring aspects of this era. Given how quickly technology and behaviors are changing, it is likely that this image will look hilariously dated not too long from now. The interface and our kids’ practices are bound to change. Someday a person staring down into a phone will look the way a 1980s hairstyle does to a teenager in 2020. But for now, the face-in-phone image is ubiquitous.
Many parents have concerns about their kids and their screen time. How much time should a child spend looking at a screen? Starting when? How much is too much? At what point should I insist that they put away their phones? Should I be monitoring what they’re doing on their phones? They seem so infatuated with their device—is that healthy?
A screen is often a highly reliable babysitter, as every harried parent of young children knows. You have a long car ride? Plane ride? A long wait at the grocery store? Dinner with friends? The best way to get some peace is to put some kind of a device with a game, movie, or Netflix subscription in front of your child. We get it. We have been those harried parents.
It’s not easy to know how hard you should work to resist what seems like the inexorable pull of these technologies. You might wonder, as we do, whether there is a way to flip the script and make some of that screen time turn from a concern into a benefit for your kids. Though this topic is never an easy one, you do have options and there are ways to support your children as they grow.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SHOWS
The data confirm your impression that Jamie and her friends are experiencing much of their childhoods through their digital devices. These screens connect them with each other and the rest of the world. Living a digitally connected life, as virtually all our children do in the United States and other wealthy countries, means that a screen is turned on somewhere near them for hours every day. It is completely reasonable to wonder if your child is spending too much time staring into screens.
The research on screen time may surprise you, though. A moderate amount of time engaged in digital activities is not inherently harmful. In fact, moderate use of devices can bring many opportunities for socializing, self-expression, exploration, and creativity. Large-scale studies, such as a study of thirty-five thousand young Americans and their caregivers, have shown that one to two hours of screen time a day can lead to higher levels of social and emotional well-being for young people than levels found in their peers without this screen time.1 Concerns about social and emotional behavior only arise in the cases of the relatively few young people whose use of digital devices fall outside the typical range of reported screen time.
Put another way, the relationship between screen time and well-being in childhood is not linear. More screen time does not simply mean more harm to kids. The harmful effects of screen time come only from excessive engagement in digital activities. What constitutes excessive can be tricky to define and can differ by person, type of activity, and other circumstances. The research suggests that the Goldilocks principle should guide the connected parent: Not too little, not too much, but some kind of a balance is right for most young people in most situations.
Let’s start by digging into the data about how much time most young people are spending on screens. The most important piece of technology in a young person’s life is typically the mobile phone. Through this mobile device, a young person accesses the latest social media feeds, interacts with friends, watches movies, and plays games. More often than ever before, children either own or have access to smartphones that they use to go online, watch Netflix or YouTube, do their homework, post on social media, and chat with their friends. They also use their mobile phones to ask for help when they need it, as the extraordinary results of Crisis Text Line—a mobile service that connects those in need with help—have demonstrated.
Getting a grip on the precise numbers for how many young people have devices and how much time they spend on which activities can be tricky. The numbers vary according to which study you read, but overall they show a clear upward trend in recent years. According to a 2018 report by Common Sense Media, 89 percent of teens owned their own smartphone, compared with 41 percent in 2012.2 A 2018 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 95 percent of young people aged thirteen to seventeen in the United States have or have access to a smartphone.3 Data from other parts of the world also reflect high rates of access to devices. For example, 56 percent of children in the United Kingdom use smartphones to go online daily, and 82 percent of children in Brazil use phones to access the internet.4 In Canada, nearly 60 percent of young people own a mobile phone.5 In Switzerland, it’s 98 percent.6 The exact rates reported in these studies will vary a bit, depending on the exact question the researchers asked. But the message is the same across cultures: most kids in wealthy countries have regular access to digital devices and use them a lot—more and more over time.
There is reason to worry about inequities in the digital world, but access to phones is fairly widespread in wealthy countries. According to the 2018 Pew report, “smartphone ownership is nearly universal among teens of different genders, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds” in the United States.7 The same is true in many other countries, such as those in Western Europe and East Asia. But smartphones are not the only screens young people use. The Pew study also found that 84 percent of all teens say they have or have access to a game console at home, with higher shares (92 percent) among boys than among girls (75 percent).8 While wealthier families are more likely to own game consoles, ownership among lower-income families is catching up in recent years. Another screen that facilitates the digital lives of young people is a desktop or laptop computer, with 88 percent of teens reporting access to such devices at home; the percentage is higher for wealthier families with advanced educational degrees.9
Taken together, the data suggest that young people are spending a lot of time each day on digital devices. Over the past few decades, the amount of time spent online has been steadily increasing. Nearly half (45 percent, to be exact) of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly,” according to the 2018 Pew Research study.10 That number has nearly doubled from a survey a few years before, when 24 percent said they were using the internet “almost constantly.”11 Another 44 percent said they go online several times a day.12 These responses are consistent with the findings of other large surveys and qualitative research: nine out of ten teens go online at least several times a day. Several researchers have been studying this phenomenon for decades and writing reports about it every few years. Their findings have been borne out time and again: as the years pass, tweens and teens spend more time, on more devices, doing more things. The same is true for adults. Nevertheless, these basic numbers are only part of the story about the question of screen time and parenting.
If you remember just one thing from this chapter on screen time, it would be this: the way young people use their screens is more important than simply how much time they spend on those devices. Young people are using digital devices in various ways that are often surprising to adults. Digital activities and usage patterns differ widely and can include watching shows, gaming, messaging, learning, and activism.
To get started, we offer a few data points on two activities that parents often seem particularly curious about when it comes to screen time: entertainment and social media usage. Teens spend about nine hours a day using entertainment and social media, according to the most recent large-scale study in the United States.13 Tweens are not far behind, at about six hours a day.14 These figures do not include any time at school or doing homework. The kids’ digital time could be spent watching TV or movies (whether on a traditional TV screen or streamed on a laptop over Amazon or Netflix), playing video games (on a separate console, a smartphone, or a PC), hanging out on social media, or listening to music.
This study, conducted by researchers at Common Sense Media in 2015, shows that many types of behavior and usage patterns are masked by these overall numbers. Among both teens and tweens, about 6 percent report no time spent using entertainment and social media. On the other end of the spectrum, 11 percent of tweens and 26 percent of teens spent more than eight hours a day with this kind of digital media. That’s more than a full-time job for these kids—and seven days a week rather than the typical five-day workweek.15
Social media drives some of the concerns parents have about screen time. Adoption of social media platforms has grown steadily over the years but is now slowing down in the United States, according to the latest statistics. Young people have been a key driver of social media and platform diversification, with Instagram and Snapchat gaining popularity recently since around 2017. Teens and tweens express a range of views about their experiences using social media. On the positive side, 81 percent of teens aged thirteen to seventeen say social media makes them feel more connected to friends, and 68 percent report that these platforms make them feel as if they have people who will provide emotional support in difficult times. On the negative side, 45 percent of teens state they feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media, and a slightly lower percentage say they feel pressured to post certain types of content to make them look good to others. Not all young people can step back and think critically about their use of media, but some do—and most young people surveyed recognize that the effects of social media are neither uniformly good or bad. Their recognition of the dual nature of social media is an opening for discussion.16
One clear finding to emerge from these data is the ubiquity, the scale, and the increase in screen time for tweens and teens over the past few decades. The way that young people spend this large amount of time, outside school and on top of homework, has obvious consequences. The messages that they are receiving, how they interact with one another, the data they are creating about themselves, the risks they are running—all of these things matter a great deal to their development. At a minimum, it is incumbent on us as parents, along with the children’s teachers and other mentors, to help them contextualize what they are doing and learning. And it makes sense that we would help them use this time productively where possible.
Younger children tend to have much less screen time per day. The data relating to this measure have been relatively stable since around 2010. A similar study by Common Sense Media, tracking the use of media by children from infancy to eight years of age, found that it averaged a bit over two hours per day.17 While TV was still the most common screen type in this 2017 survey, mobile devices have been gaining ground fast. Two 2019 studies showing that very young children tended to spend more time online than was recommended laid the cause for this tendency at the feet of their parents.18
Although the gap is narrowing with time, wealthier parents are still more likely than poorer families to have access at home to high-speed internet. Other divides, including racial divisions, also persist for broadband service at home. As Pew reports, “Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.”19
A small majority of parents in the United States (55 percent) say that they set some limits on the amount of time that their children spend online during a given period. Some parents report that they set time restrictions as a consequence for bad behavior, but many others simply apply across-the-board limits on time online. Parents of younger children, including younger teens, are more likely to set time-based limits than are the parents of older teenagers.20
You might reasonably wonder how certain we are about the research on any given topic. For screen time, the amount of time our kids are spending online is very clear. In this respect, we are extremely confident. A few great researchers have spent more than a decade studying this issue and updating their research over time. The methodologies they use are sound, and the studies tend to find nearly the same results for similar populations. And the exact numbers don’t really matter; what matters is the order of magnitude of screen time. In other words, we know that more and more of most kids’ lives are mediated by devices.
So what’s a parent to do about all this screen time? And to what degree is it a problem? These are thornier questions. The data are not as helpful in this respect. The short version is that moderate use of screens can be a benefit for most young people. On the other hand, there can also be a connection between high levels of screen time and anxiety, addiction, and aggression among young people. Higher levels of screen time can also be associated with obesity, unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms, and lower quality of life.
We understand that families are very different, from one to the next, in terms of their circumstances. Families with a great deal of privilege and means—and that includes our own households—have greater ability to manage the time spent online in their household. Families with two parents and fewer children have logistical advantages in this respect, too. For a single-parent household with multiple children with a wide range of ages, the advice in this chapter on limiting screen time may be much harder to follow. We get that. And there aren’t easy answers in those cases, as the parents involved know, even with the best of intentions.
THE CONNECTED PARENTS’ APPROACH
It may help you to know our basic philosophy of parenting with respect to kids and technology before we dispense any advice. We both have teenage children. We’ve sought to align our own parenting at home with what we’ve been learning from our work with the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
For both of us, our work in this field has stemmed in part from trying to figure out the best way to parent our own children as they were growing up. John’s spouse was in graduate school studying early childhood development when their first child was born. As researchers of the internet and digital media, both of us see the benefits of using technology in learning, connecting, and growing up. But those who study early childhood development, in particular, have some real concerns about screen time, especially for the youngest of children. So who’s right?
Our philosophy has been to seek to gain the greatest benefits from digital media while mitigating its downsides. We have seen and experienced how technology can be a tool of empowerment that has sometimes allowed children to participate in civic life and engage with ideas and other people in ways otherwise not possible. And young people can use the technology as a lifeline to get the help they need in key moments. We seek a balance in terms of the approach we take with our children and our students.
We have found that most one-size-fits-all rules for screen time don’t work well. We want young people to embrace the creativity and innovative spirit of the internet, the fun and vibrancy of (some) social media, and the excitement of the digital era. Young people can use new technologies to create new forms of art, develop skills that may earn them jobs in the future, and start new political and social movements that change the world. At the same time, many young people get pulled into counterproductive activities online. They don’t always spend their screen time well or act using their best judgment. They can put themselves at risk in a variety of ways.
Connected parents work from the premise that children do need limits, both for technology usage and for other activities. Young people benefit when we define and enforce those limits, even as they press (and sometimes rage) against them. Rules and guidance need to change with the child’s age and circumstances. While they can take different forms, rules always need to be clear and fairly enforced. Kids see through our ambivalence and lack of integrity faster than we realize. They have an amazing meter for recognizing insincerity and hypocrisy. We need to think through our approach in advance, communicate it as clearly as we can, stick to our beliefs as long as it’s appropriate to do so, and adjust along the way.
Rules are much more easily set than enforced. Both of us are parents of young people with busy and complicated lives. Even as the data suggest that we should set some limits, especially for young children, we know that the complexities of life often get in the way. And if we can’t always live up to the ideal and need to accept limitations on enforcement, some research suggests that the key is not only to set standards but also to have ongoing discussions about the reasoning and concerns behind them. At least then, young people are better informed about the risks they are taking if they decide to take advantage of the weak spots in their parents’ monitoring abilities.
Connected parents listen to their children and discuss issues such as screen time and appropriate limits with them. When we pose questions to young people in national surveys and in focus groups, we include space for teens and tweens to share their own concerns about technology use. Young people themselves can and should have a voice in helping us understand their practices in an ongoing way that provides texture and context for the data that we collect more formally. For this reason, we urge connected parents to listen carefully to the lived experiences of the young people in their care.
We need to be the adults who set and enforce the rules. But our kids can help guide us along the way. They don’t always get the decision-making authority, but we can learn a lot from them. They also appreciate being heard and understood, even when we end up disagreeing with them. Technological change has broken down certain boundaries and hierarchies. When managed with care, this change can form stronger connections between us and the young people in our lives. We should embrace these connections, which can help us improve how we ourselves teach and learn.
Technology isn’t a separate category of parenting. The way our children interact with media is part and parcel of their complex lives. It is connected to nearly everything else: formal and informal learning, friendship, the development of civic life, the preparation for the workforce, and the way kids relate to institutions and one another. Your rules about technology will make sense to your children when the details are part of a coherent philosophy. The philosophy should be grounded in a real-world understanding of how much your kids value their digital devices and the connections they enable—especially whenever our adult perspectives differ from our children’s.
Finally, our philosophy on how much time young people should spend using digital technologies turns in part on what they are doing when they are online. The studies of screen time help give us a sense of overall scale of kids’ day-to-day exposure. But there’s a difference between a ten-year-old spending several hours playing Minecraft and the same kid spending those same hours watching reruns of a sitcom on Netflix. The time spent on Netflix isn’t necessarily harmful to our kids, but other activities just might be more creative and challenging and might lead to a happier, healthier childhood. This philosophy, grounded in sound research and years of practice, sets the frame for our specific advice.
When you think about whether to set rules for your children in terms of time spent on digital devices, we urge you to consider this question more broadly: do you generally set any rules for your children? Unless you follow an extreme parenting philosophy, your answer is almost certainly yes. You don’t let very young children use the hot stove. Young children can’t cross the street on their own or walk to day care without you. You require them to get a certain amount of sleep (or at least you try really hard to get them to sleep). You ensure that they periodically eat something.
The connected parents’ answer to whether young people need rules about their engagement with technology is yes. The real answer is a bit more complicated than that, but we start with the premise that too much of anything can lead to problems down the line and that you want to maximize the good things while minimizing those that cause harm. If your child spends half the night on the phone texting with friends and scrolling on social media, he won’t be rested enough for school the next day. Or if your child spends the whole afternoon playing Fortnite rather than doing homework, her grades may suffer.
We have found that students actually want you to set some boundaries on screen time and the types of things they can do online. Even if (or more likely, when) they push back in the moment, they are well served by carefully set, consistently upheld limits. You have no doubt seen this phenomenon over and over again in parenting. Most young people need adults to limit their excesses and to show them a good pathway forward in life.
Let’s start with the most basic of questions: How much time should they spend online? The answer depends a lot on the age of your child. Most experts suggest that virtually any kind of screen time for the very youngest children is not a good thing. Over time, it makes sense to give young people more freedom as they demonstrate that they can handle it. The American Academy of Pediatrics published an important revision of its screen time guidelines in 2016, and we agree with their latest recommendations for the youngest children:21
Birth to eighteen months: Avoid all screen media—phones, tablets, TVs, and computers—where possible. The academy and other researchers have found that lasting negative effects on children’s development of language, reading ability, and short-term memory are possible at this age. Studies have also shown problems associated with sleep and attention. One caveat to this basic rule: video chatting or phone chatting with grandparents or faraway family or friends is fine. In fact, it is to be encouraged, for all sorts of good reasons unrelated to technology.
Eighteen months to two years: If you like, introduce some short clips, fifteen minutes a day at most, of some high-quality children’s media. Watch them with your children. Whenever possible, don’t use these devices as an electronic babysitter. We know that this advice is easier said than followed, especially for folks who have little backup parenting support and few childcare options. Children will recognize what you are doing with your devices, and they will want to participate, too. Your modeling from the start makes a huge difference.
Two to five years: The academy recommends that parents set a limit of no more than one hour a day of high-quality programming for children, though we would advise focusing more on the quality of the programming and your interactions with your children than on the precise amount of time involved. When they are watching, be sure to watch shows with them. Talk to them about what they’re seeing. Give them context for what they are watching and how it connects to the world around them. Try to break up the exposure into discrete doses, rather than a solid block of time, and be sure to intersperse discussion, reading time, and other forms of direct human engagement with the screen time.
Our advice is to prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for your very young children, at least up through the toddler age. No evidence convinces us that extensive screen time at a very early age affords any advantage. And there are definitely reasons to think that sharp limits for babies and toddlers are likely to serve them well over time.
Some parents marvel at their toddler’s seemingly innate ability to interact with technological devices. It’s true. A very young child can zip through the interface of an iPad in a way that seems much more natural than a grandparent’s first attempts. The child’s facility has to do with many factors, one of which is the way that Apple and other big technology companies approach design. They design pathways that feel intuitive for younger minds.
As amazing as a toddler’s ease with an iPad can seem, that’s not a reason to believe that kids need to learn to use an iPad at age one, for fear that they will never get a job in Silicon Valley or will never compete in an increasingly digitized workplace. We’ve in fact been struck by how many of our colleagues who work in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs keep their kids far away from technology for as long as they can.22
- "Palfrey and Gasser offer a thoughtful and necessary consideration of the difficulties of parenting digital natives, and how to contend with them. They show us how to remain connected to our kids, and to our humanity, in an age in which our kids live, learn, and struggle as much online as they do in the physical world."—Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard University
- "This book is the must-read guide for parents as they navigate their children's journey in all things digital. No duo is more suited for the task -- as esteemed educators, prominent researchers, and as parents of teens themselves, Palfrey and Gasser help guide parents on their shepherding of their kids through responsible, thoughtful, and rewarding uses of digital tools. The book is filled with tips on how to be effective partners and interlocutors in the process of working with teenagers as they game, learn, befriend, and experiment online. The book illuminates on questions about privacy, safety, and overuse of digital tools. This is the guide that I wish I had when I was parenting teens."—Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace
- "I can't imagine a more important book for a caretaker or parent of a child or young adult. Many parents think they understand the online world their children navigate for hours every day, but this moment is more complex than any other in the digital age. Children and young adults experience ideas, emotions, and feelings of belonging based on how they experience their online world. Palfrey and Gasser offer clear direction and vital insight on understanding their digital space and making it safe, fun, and productive. The Connected Parent is a must read for anyone with a child (and those preparing to have one)."—Farah Pandith, author and former U.S. diplomat
- "The Connected Parent comes at a time when the practice of parenting has been made much more challenging as children spend increasing amounts of time with screens, technology, and the world around them. Parents have been overwhelmed by fear-mongering, misinformation, and confusion when it comes to their children's engagement with the digital world. The Connected Parent is a book that many parents will find refreshing, informative, and grounded in the familiar realities of daily life. Drawing from some of the best research in the world and their deep subject matter expertise John Palfrey and Urs Gasser make a significant contribution to the ongoing conversation about how to help our children use technology more effectively while also supporting their health, happiness, and readiness for the future."—S. Craig Watkins, author of The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality
- "Parents and any other adults involved in the lives of young people today need advice and wisdom about how to protect and how to assist 'digital natives' who often live as much online as in person. Internationally recognized experts John Palfrey and Urs Gasser provide a rare combination of practical, concrete wisdom and deeply-researched knowledge addressing fears and benefits from social media and other digital worlds of children and teens. Their accessible insights will help today's adults ensure safety, address anxieties and harassment, and enhance learning and civic engagement while also deepening meaningful connections with the young people in their lives."—Martha Minow, Harvard University
- "If you are a parent, educator, or clinician, or in fact anyone interested in healthy development in our modern digital age, The Connected Parent is a compelling, comprehensive, and clear presentation of the latest science illuminating how life on the small screen influences our children and adolescents' lives. Building a solid foundation of research and practical advice, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser offer an insightful and effective approach to helping our youth grow with resilience, relational connection, and a wise approach to being engaged citizens in an uncertain and ever-changing world."—Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., New York Times-bestselling author of The Developing Mind
- "The Connected Parent is a lucid guide for parents everywhere who aren't sure what to make of our hyperconnected world and its effects on their children. Palfrey and Gasser offer balanced answers to some of the issue's trickiest puzzles: How much screen time is too much? Can my kids become addicted to video games and social media? Can an online social life be nourishing in the same way as offline social lives have been for millennia? My favorite part of the book, though, was its focus on remedies -- on the importance of exposing kids to the kinds of diversity, opportunities to learn, and civic life that are often hard to find online, but represent the best experiences in our real, offline world. Highly recommended."—Adam Alter, marketing and psychology professor, New York University Stern School of Business, New York Times-bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
- "The authors effectively combine research and anecdote, and they carefully sum up their recommendations at the end of each chapter along with a list of common questions. Because the influence of technology will only grow in coming years, this thorough investigation is a welcome addition to the parenting shelves."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Basic Books