TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat. News. Email. Kids are surrounded by screens. We’re surrounded by screens. Alarms on our phones wake us up, and feeds on our phones put us to sleep. Most American kids are growing up with no concept of life without everpresent technology.
This is a theme, a reality, that became apparent to Tracy Foster as she talked to other parents about technology. Most parents, regardless of their kids’ ages, struggled with how to think through various aspects of their kids’ relationships with technology. When do they get a cell phone? How much television time per day? And now that millions of kids do school in virtual classrooms, how do they even think about screen time in light of school, work, and play?
These questions face parents early, and unlike other parenting questions — like how to establish a sleep schedule, deal with temper tantrums, or get a picky kid to eat — no teachers, guardians, or grandparents have experienced this before (with the exception of television, most kids’ tech consumption takes place on devices developed over the last decade).
These conversations didn’t surprise Foster.
Ten years earlier, when she was also about to have her first child, Foster worked for a large toy company researching the social impact of products around the world. Her work revealed that TV shows and technology advertised as “educational” often stunted verbal and cognitive development for many kids. That’s because screens often turned into a replacement for face-to-face interaction and brain-challenging activities, subbing for in-person time with family.
“We had this influx of screens and there’s so much possibility,” she told me this spring, “but is it really doing good in my life?” Related questions were, “How can I harness the positive and minimize side effects?”
According to a study in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, higher levels of screen time in children and adolescents from ages two to 17 resulted in more depression and anxiety diagnoses, as well as reports of lower well-being. And that’s to say nothing of issues like pornography and online bullying.
While the data around children and technology is not wholly conclusive (remember, this is a brand new discussion), statistics do point toward healthier lifestyles when technology use is structured and monitored, which is what START is striving to help parents and teachers discover.
Foster decided to do something about it. She, along with Krista Boan and Brenda Walden, launched a company called START, an acronym for the company’s model. START conducts in-person training, online webinars, and is currently providing support for schools and parents who are doing virtual school. The goal of START, she said, is to bring people together to discuss and implement best practices around technology.
The community aspect is important, she mentioned, because she thinks that the kids-and-tech conversation is, “at the deepest root, an issue of cultural norms.”
Before they give parents or teachers advice, the START team emphasizes a need for empathy. Most kids watch other kids or peers with phones and more access to technology and feel embarrassment for not having the same things. But those feelings rarely lead to conversations.
“Research shows that only 14 percent of kids say they have ever had a good conversation with an adult about technology,” Foster said. “And the overwhelming reason why they think they’re not good is because it just feels like the adult is being punitive.”
She thinks empathy creates a space where, once a parent begins to implement new steps, there is common ground.
“We really want to equip parents with that empathy, with that understanding so that when they step into the conversation, they’re not just slapping a kid on the wrist,” she said. “They’re actually helping them think about it; instead of just calling them away from something, calling them into something better.”
Something better is a healthy relationship with technology, what Foster calls a tool, not a sub for in-person community.
“At the end of our life, all we will have had is our time and attention,” she reiterated. “And so how can we be intentional about what we want to be achieving in our life? What does our family value? What do you value? And how can you use technology to support that?”