Screen time v play time: what tech leaders won’t let their own kids do

June 5, 2015 8:08 am 1 comment Views:

Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive designed some of the world’s most desirable tech – but imposed strict limits on their own children using it. What rules do others set?

Child models all looking at screens

When a technology journalist suggested to Steve Jobs, in 2010, that his children must have loved the just-released iPad, he replied flatly: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” His former righthand man, Jonathan Ive, whose design for the iPad is so simple that toddlers can operate it, recently revealed that he sets strict limits for his 10-year-old twin boys.

Steiner Waldorf schools, which exclude screen time before the age of 12 in favour of physical activity, art and experiential learning, are particularly popular with Silicon Valley executives and their UK counterparts. Kevin Avison, executive officer of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in the UK, says that when he was teaching near Reading, “nearly 50% of parents of children in the class worked at Oracle or other hi-tech computer companies”.

This approach is much more stringent than official guidelines recommend. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for the first two years of life, but after that recommends no more than one to two hours a day, no screens in children’s bedrooms and enforcing meal-time and bedtime media-device curfews. In the UK, the only official screen-time ruling comes from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which recently advised trying TV-free days, or limiting it to fewer than two hours a day, to maintain a healthy weight.

According to Ofcom’s latest Media Use and Attitudes Report, seven in 10 of the UK’s five- to 15-year-olds have access to tablet computers, with 34% owning their own. Households often have more than one laptop, smartphone, games console and TV, too. There are concerns that these devices have negative impacts on children’s attention spans and social development, as well as their physical health (not to mention the additional worries of exposure to sex, violence and cyberbullying). But how much screen time is too much? We asked the real experts.

‘It inspires them to draw and create’

Johnny Taylor with his partner, Gina North, and their children Leon, eight, and Myla, six
Johnny Taylor with his partner, Gina North, and their children Leon, eight, and Myla, six Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Johnny Taylor of Mind Candy with his partner, Gina North, and their children Leon, eight, and Myla, six. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian
Johnny Taylor is art director at games company Mind Candy, which makes Moshi Monsters and World Of Warriors. He lives in Brighton and has an eight-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter.

We have loose rules. I don’t say my children must have only two hours’ screen time a day, but it often ends up like that. Technology is part of their life, and as a parent I have to make sure that other things are just as important, like going out, exercising, drawing and being creative. At weekends, my son can play computer games as long as he’s done his homework, but a lot of times, his homework involves screen time, too.

We’ve got a Nintendo Wii. My daughter has an iPod touch, and we’ve got two iPads, a Nexus tablet and a couple of computers. I’m the keeper of the passwords, so they can’t download games without our permission.

We have all the safety features turned on, and they’re pretty good at knowing what they should be looking at. Once, I found my daughter watching videos about pregnant parents. She said: “I really love babies. I just want to see babies being born.”

World Of Warriors was inspired by my son. He loved play-fighting and I’d say to him, “Maybe fighting’s not the best thing.” We talked about warriors in the past – Ottomans, Vikings and Romans – and how they shaped the world we live in. He was fascinated, and it led to this game idea that is about collecting warriors throughout history. It’s covertly educational.

I got home the other night and couldn’t wait to show my son the new Mario Kart, because we’ve been playing it together. It’s a racing game that’s been out since I was young, and now my son’s into it and collects the toys. It doesn’t stop at the device, for a lot of children; it inspires them to draw and make things, and play with toys.

It’s easy for technology to take over, so we try to manage that and make sure the kids aren’t all red-faced and anxious. They’re not involved in social media yet, although my son’s really into swimming and I find him watching Michael Phelps videos on the iPad. I’ve been videoing him swimming in competitions, and he’s started asking if we can post them on YouTube. I haven’t, because I don’t have permission from the other children’s parents, and I feel that he is a little young now.

‘No TV or computers before age 12’
Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft and Intel marketing manager, is currently working on a Silicon Valley startup. He has two daughters, aged nine and 15, and a 17-year-old son.

I love computers. They can do wonderful things, if you use them properly. But you can overuse technology, and become a slave to it.

We allowed screen time for our son until he was two. Then I read a book called The Growth Of The Mind, by Stanley Greenspan, which explains how we learn when we are small through our interaction with the world, and because of emotions.

We did some research, and started connecting with Waldorf schools – which all our children attend. We saw that Waldorf teenagers had a different way of approaching adults and were very interested in the world. We decided that there’s no harm in not exposing children to screens until they’re big enough. It can only be beneficial. Young children like stories, to play with things, sing, make things, build and be in nature. So that’s what we did. They haven’t complained.

There isn’t an intent to harm children, but there’s an intent to keep them engaged
You could offer an hour’s screen time a day, but media products are designed to keep people’s attention. It’s not that there’s an intent to harm children, but there’s an intent to keep them engaged. In the late 90s, when I was working at Intel and my first child was born, we had what was called the “war of the eyeballs”. People don’t want you to wander and start playing with another product, so it has a hooking effect. It looks like it’s soothing your child and keeping them busy so you can do something else, but that effect is not very good for small children.

It stops them discovering the world with their senses. And there’s a risk to attention. It’s not scientifically proven yet, but there’s an idea that attention is like a muscle that we build. It’s about being able to tune out all the distraction and focus on one thing. When you engage with these devices, you don’t build that capacity. It’s computer-aided attention; you’re not learning to do it.

Our children start interacting with computers and smartphones at around 12. When they’re in the house, they put the phones to charge on the table in the hallway and don’t use them much. My son has a Facebook account and uses email, and he does some texting. He’s connected and engaged, but he’s not a slave to technology. He started getting interested in video games when he was 14, because that’s how he keeps in touch with his cousin in Europe – through a multiplayer game about the Napoleonic wars.

We’ve also had a no-TV rule, and they watched movies maybe once during the weekend, and we ease it out as they grow up. My son is pretty much free to watch what he wants now, but he’s good at self-regulating, partly because he has built other interests.

‘I let them play on devices – it beats being thrown out of a restaurant’
Anne Wojcicki is co-founder and CEO of gene-testing startup 23andme. She has a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter with Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Being in Silicon Valley makes me strict when it comes to my children’s technology use. I am surrounded by it all day, so I try to avoid it when I get home. I set screen-time limits, because I think it’s good to diversify activities.

My son has an iPod touch, so he can text me when he comes home from school to tell me about his day. In terms of kids’ apps and games, I loved Starfall, which helps teach phonics, and I use BrainPop, the educational website with videos and games, a lot now.

I tried to minimise exposure to technology before two. After that, I’ve taught the kids to use devices in moderation. It’s important for them to learn how to control their behaviour themselves. Simply restricting access makes them want it more. Yes, I worry about what they might be exposed to on the internet, but I think it’s more important to teach children judgment. You can’t shield them from everything, so you need to teach them to make good decisions. I do let the kids play on devices when we eat out – it’s better than being thrown out of a restaurant. And I let them play with them on their own.

It’s very important that children learn to use technology – it’s part of life – but also that they learn when to put it down. They don’t put up a fight. The five-minute warning always works.

I don’t get a thrill out of seeing my kids using tech, and they haven’t tried Google Glass. I much prefer when they get wonder out of picking strawberries in the garden. That said, I do love that my son texts me. He has all kinds of fun uses for emoticons.

Child models with iPads and iPhones

Child models with iPads and iPhones Facebook Twitter Pinterest
‘I’ve taught the kids to use devices in moderation,’ says Anne Wojcicki. ‘It’s important for them to learn how to control their behaviour themselves. Simply restricting access makes them want it more.’ Picture posed by models. Photograph: Perou for the Guardian
‘They both have Twitter accounts ’
Rachel Bremer is Twitter’s head of international communications. She has a five-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter, and lives in London.

We’re still in the early stages. They use our devices, under our supervision, so I can help them understand the right ways to use the web and the value they can get out of it. My son is curious, and loves watching videos about space shuttles taking off and finding out what different animals like to eat. We’re helping them see technology as a way of finding out more about the world, rather than just a source of entertainment.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to play video games. My dad worked at Apple, so we had computers around the house, but the things I played on them involved maths, learning and writing. This has probably influenced my parenting more than working in technology has. My son plays games from kids’ apps on our phones, but they have to be educational – puzzles or problem-solving. When they get older, we’ll give them more freedom, but we’ll probably have a certain amount of screen time that they’re allowed, in a day or week, and they’ll be able to choose how they spend that time.

We use iPhones and iPads when we’re travelling. Travelling as much as you can with kids is a great way to broaden their world view. If it takes some iPad time to get you to an interesting destination and keep everyone happy, there’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you’re not bothering other people.

Both children have had private Twitter accounts since they were born, which we use to share photos and videos. Our families are in the US, so it’s a way to stay in touch. We used Periscope, the live-streaming app Twitter just bought, privately to broadcast our son’s school assembly for his grandparents. We’re gradually getting our son comfortable with social media. I wouldn’t want to restrict it for my children altogether, and then one day in the future open the floodgates and let them at it.

It seems like the longer he uses a device or watches something, the harder it is to get him to give it up. We’re clear with him that when he gets upset about putting it down, then he won’t get to use it again. That’s part of it: teaching them that they have to walk away.

‘We follow our son on Instagram’
Nitin Ganatra is a wearable technology software developer and former Apple staffer. He worked on iPhone software from the initial development stage until IOS version 5.1 (2012). He has two sons, aged 10 and 12, and lives in California.

We do have quite a few gadgets around: iPads; my oldest son has an iPhone, and my younger son has an old iPhone, but it’s not on a plan so it operates like an iPod touch. My oldest son also has a Kindle Fire, and we have a PlayStation 4. We’re pretty strict on that, because my wife doesn’t like violent games. We have rules about having your homework done and playing outside before coming in and hunkering down in front of the TV.

My 10-year-old has an Instagram account. It has to be a private account, and we follow him. With his phone, one of the rules is that at any moment we can take a look. We have had talks with him about making sure that only people he knows can follow him.

He does a pretty good job. At first, we were more suspicious and wanted to know what he was chatting about with his friends. These days, we don’t look too often: we felt a little bit like stalkers. We also have “find my friend” turned on, so we always know where he is. We do stalk him quite a bit in that way.

They both need to use the internet for homework and have their own user accounts on our laptops. The deal is that work on a laptop has to be done in an open area – you can’t hole up in your room with the computer.

My line of work affects how I view their screen use. Even though I’m pro-technology, I don’t want it to be all-consuming. It’s easy to get so wrapped up very quickly. I try to limit the amount of time I spend in front of a screen as well. Humans are not designed to sit for too long, staring at a fixed distance. In addition, there are benefits to being outside: sunlight, social interactions, learning. If my kids have a fight with a buddy, they need to resolve these things in person, and not come in and complain on social media about it.

But some of the things I owe my current career to go way back to those times when I was fascinated by a video game, and how the thing worked. I’d like to foster a little bit of that excitement around technology in my children. I love to see them using technology I helped create. It’s my physical baby playing with my work baby.

‘I don’t want her to get obsessed’

Karim Dia Toubajie with his wife, Joanna, and their daughter, Freida.Karim Dia Toubajie with his wife, Joanna, and their daughter, Freida.
Karim Dia Toubajie with his wife, Joanna, and their daughter, Freida. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Karim Dia Toubajie of Songkick with his wife, Joanna, and their daughter, Freida. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian
Karim Dia Toubajie is an interaction designer at band-and-gig-tracking website Songkick, and previously worked for PlayStation. He has a 16-month-old daughter and lives in London.

My wife and I are pretty conscious about exposing our daughter to too much early on. We both like creative play, so prefer her to focus on toys, crayons and books. She seems more stimulated by texture, smell and physical movement, which digital can’t really provide. That said, if I use my phone in her proximity, she is attracted by the bright light and will want to grab it off me – denied!

Her current usage is limited to a xylophone app on my phone – which looks like her real xylophone – if she needs an emergency distraction. She’ll normally play for about 10 to 20 seconds before activating the home screen. About once a week, when she has come into our bed in the morning, we’ll let her watch CBeebies on the iPlayer app, so we can grab a few extra winks. But she only watches for a couple of minutes before resorting to crazed swiping and button hitting.

At Christmas, we spent a weekend with a six-year-old who watched Minecraft YouTube videos for about 10 hours daily, and I’m conscious of how easy it might be for children to get obsessed with digital. Working in technology, I’m also aware how these channels are designed for continual user journeys, with no defined end point. Some games that parents consider harmless, like Farmville, encourage in-app purchases in order to progress in the game, and stories have circulated online about people becoming so obsessed with it that they’re neglecting their children, or children have taken their parents’ credit cards. These kinds of games are designed to capture revenue by capitalising on certain parts of human nature, to be addictive.

However, some games are culturally important. To make The Last Of Us, on PlayStation, they brought together hundreds of people in the arts – musicians, designers, actors – who effectively created film-sized games. Monument Valley’s another example. That’s definitely a game I’d let my daughter play when she’s older. And I’ll start getting her into programming. But I’ll take a similar approach to my parents: I didn’t get a computer until I was 11, and then it was one hour a day. I’d like my daughter to have a diverse set of hobbies, and not get obsessed.

‘My daughter said the cinema was the biggest iPad she’d ever seen’
Alex Evans is co-founder and technical director of games company Media Molecule, and creator of the game LittleBigPlanet. He has a daughter aged four and a one-year-old son, and lives in London.

I don’t play games myself, but I’ve always been obsessed with making them. When I was a child, I’d wake up at five in the morning and play Lego until I went to sleep, and then it was computers – to make my Lego models come to life. My parents chose not to limit me, because I think my mum, who is a composer, decided it was sufficiently creative. I put in my 10,000 hours, and it is now my profession. So with my kids, if I feel they’re doing something that is sufficiently creative or stimulating, I’ll let them carry on. As long as there are other things in their lives, like reading and playing outside and everything else, it doesn’t bother me.

The universal obsession is Minecraft. It is a remarkably creative and social endeavour. It’s the game Lego said they wish they’d made – it’s mostly about building things out of blocks. It’s hard for our generation to understand, but it isn’t just a game: there’s a culture and community that’s evolved around it, through YouTube and books.

We do a terrible thing if she’s playing up in a restaurant: we’ll use the iPad as a digital pacifier
The Candy Crush types of games, that are mindlessly addictive, are mostly played by commuters on the train. Violent games are a media touchpoint, but they’re the equivalent of Transformers in the cinema – the noisy minority. If my kids had a diet of blockbusters only, that would be a shame, but if you look at what most kids consume games-wise, it’s far more varied and interesting than what my generation has consumed. Maybe my limiting will be saying, “Hey, have you tried this game or watched this movie?” I’ll try to broaden rather than limit.

My daughter recently went to the cinema for the first time and told me it was “like the biggest iPad you’ve ever seen”. Her gaming reference point isn’t video games on TV any more, but the iPad. Even my one-year-old is already aware of what an iPad is and how to unlock it. The games brands my daughter loves are Sega Mini, which has an exploratory feel, and Toca Boca, who do things like Hair Salon. She doesn’t spend hours on it yet, so I haven’t had to be heavy-handed.

I bought her an iPad mini, which has been by her side and is now battered. We do a terrible thing, which you’ll frown at, but if she’s playing up in a restaurant, we’ll put on the iPad and use it as a digital pacifier. That’s the one time when I question my parenting. It’s me pushing it on her – she’s not asking for it. It’s literally like a dummy. It’s like saying, “Please go into your own world so I can have a conversation.”

‘His grandfather sent him a Vine’
Ryan Swigart, a web designer at Vine, has a three-and-a-half-month-old boy and lives in New York.

Having a baby has made me very aware of my own habits. His exposure to technology is something I’m thinking about constantly: how much do I have the phone or television on? Technology enhances your ability to do all kinds of good things, but also passively to absorb stimulation. When you’re young, especially, learning happens better when you’re physically active: not only because it gets the blood flowing, but also because you’re using all your senses, which helps you remember things. If you allow someone to be stimulated so easily, there’s not much motivation to put work into that relationship.

Not to demonise any particular technology, but I want to be very involved in how much and what sort of information is coming to my son. I’m wondering whether maybe 30 minutes a day of internet or television would be a good place to start, when he’s ready. He has very limited exposure now; we don’t keep a TV on at all. We do send Vine messages to family members with him, and use Facetime. My father-in-law blew a raspberry into a Vine message that loops over and over again, and he’s mesmerised by it. It could become the way he calms down from being upset, if we were to lean on that. It’s interesting how powerful it is, how one particular image has such an effect on his mood. It reminds me we need to be careful.

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