Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of the new book Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat--Strategies for Solving the Real Parenting Problems. Her other books include The New Trail of Tears and 'Til Faith Do Us Part. She is a former columnist for the New York Post, and she lives in the New York suburbs.
Q: Why did you decide to write this new book about parents' role in monitoring kids' use of screens?
A: It was partly personal and partly professional. I have three kids. It’s the journey we’re on trying to find the right balance but also a journalist’s guide. Parents are getting a lot of mixed messages.
I wanted to talk to researchers. When they’re talking to the media, they’re very reticent about making bold claims, even when the research supports it. I didn’t want to be too judgmental, but I really pressed them.
Q: In the book, you describe a Waldorf school and its approach to technology. What about their approach appeals to you, and do you think this approach is possible for kids who attend schools that employ more technology in the classroom?
A: What appealed to me is that I was able to see how the school, despite all the pressures of the modern age to give kids screens, saw the possibility to give kids an education that develops their imaginations and skills in a way that’s [partly] self-motivated—the kids are coming up with a lot of it on their own.
It fits with the research on not micromanaging every minute of their time.
It was interesting to see it on display—it’s hard to go into someone’s house and say, Kids, play! In this setting [at the school], the kids are used to, when they have time for free play, [having] plenty of ways to entertain themselves. The dolls don’t talk, but they’re also very plain-looking. A lot is up to the kids’ imaginations.
For parents who think their kids wouldn’t come up with things on their own, it’s easy to see this was possible. It’s what kids do on their own if we let them.
If kids are in a school that provides a lot of technology, and has kids using screens at school and at home, for some parents it’s a question if this is necessary. We should all be doing more questioning about whether all that technology is adding to educational outcomes. Maine’s had a 1:1 iPad program for 10 years now, and there’s no bump in educational outcomes.
What can parents do? At home, it means counteracting [the focus on screens], encouraging reading actual books, spending time outside.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I think part of it is that our attitudes toward technology need to be presented in a way that’s similar to the rest of our parenting philosophy. Parents know what to do in other situations. When it comes to screens, we throw that all out the window.
Because the opportunity is always there, we feel overwhelmed by demands from kids. Now as soon as you set foot in the car, the kids want to play on the phone in the car, or when you're waiting in line at a restaurant, or at a swim meet, the opportunity is always there.
Kids know when you’re being inconsistent. They know how to wear [parents] down. This is not any different from if a kid’s demanding chocolate cake all day long. You’d say, this is crazy! Part of the point of the title is [to see that] this is not unlike every other demand kids make on you.
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to children’s use of screens?
A: There’s a little bit of a backlash now…Educators may be prompted by stories about what technology companies are doing to get into the classrooms. That may give pause. Parents may find ways to cut back and encourage children to cut back.
There are stories about giant sexting circles. Parents are on edge about how to handle this. It’s not new, but maybe we’re at the point where people can say, What’s the first step to change this?
It’s hard to do alone if you’re in a community where everybody [has the technology]. You want to be in a community where people share your values…Parents can direct their children in subtle ways.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another project, about child welfare generally. It’s probably more geared toward kids who are more vulnerable and at risk.
I talk about that group a little bit in this book, about giving kids in low-income groups technology and telling parents it’s a way to solve the gap. Kids in more disadvantaged homes are using screens for more hours than their middle-class peers. I think that will put them at a disadvantage.
The next project is looking at the welfare system, the foster care system, and the opioid crisis.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I try in the book not to be ridiculously judgmental. I don’t think the situation parents are in is all our fault. Parents are under pressure from schools, the culture, technology companies, to hand over screens. And there are times for it—in the emergency room with a child, it can make time fly by for them. We shouldn’t discount the advances when we’re flying across the country.
We’re under all this pressure, and sometimes we’re just throwing up our hands. The book is about making distinctions, and coming up with rules that are appropriate for our family rather than burying our head in the sand.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley.