How much screen time?

Silicon Valley parents are still trying to figure it out.

      By Ana Homayoun     December 27, 2018  

“Is  it true that Silicon Valley tech executives don’t let their kids use  screens?” I was on the East Coast speaking with parents and once again  was asked the question I can’t seem to escape.

I’ve observed with curiosity the ongoing buzz about how Silicon Valley parents — particularly those who are technology executives and investors — keep their children off screens. These stories tend to create low-grade anxiety as well as a parent-shaming aimed at those who let their kids use screens.

Over  the past 15 years, I’ve worked as an educational consultant focused on  executive-functioning issues with tweens and teens in an office about  five miles from Google’s, Facebook’s and Apple’s main campuses. More  than a thousand middle school and high school students have walked into  my office over the years — including those whose parents are technology  CEOs, executives, venture capitalists and other investors — to discuss  their work habits, distractions and the effects of everyday technology  in their lives.

It’s no secret that social media  and technology use have become a hot topic nationwide — especially  because there has been little research into the relationship between  teens' technology and social media use and long-term brain development  and mental wellness. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently  announced the launch of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development  (ABCD) study,  which will track more than 11,000 teens to investigate factors that  influence young people, including the impact of screen use on brain  development. Research has linked digital media use to poorer sleep quality and duration, which, as sleep researcher Matthew Walker notes in his book “Why We Sleep,” can easily affect focus, concentration, mood and mental well-being.

[What teens wish their parents knew about social media]

After  spending the past year traveling to more than 35 cities across the  country consulting with schools on social media, technology and student  wellness issues, as well as visiting many of the schools in Silicon  Valley, I’ve found it’s a fallacy that most parents working in  technology want their kids to live completely screen-free lives. It  certainly may be easier to keep younger children from using screens, but  all the Silicon Valley parents I interviewed agreed it isn’t realistic  once children are school-aged. Instead, they are focused on finding ways  to make sure their kids have healthy experiences online and in real  life — and in some ways are further along than other parents in doing  so.

Take, for example, Loren Cheng, director of  product management for Facebook Messenger Kids and father of a  preschooler, a second-grader and a fifth-grader. He lets his children  use technology to promote creation, collaboration or communication. His  second-grader loves Minecraft and recently used online video tutorials  to build an elaborate castle with underground traps. His fifth-grader  messages him in the afternoon when he is still at work, conversations  he’s not sure they would have otherwise.

These  activities point to an important and often overlooked distinction in how  and when technology is used. For instance, a child passively staring at  a screen is different from one who is actively communicating with a  grandparent via FaceTime or using online tools to develop creative  projects, say, to create animation or to edit videos.

For  younger kids, strict guidelines can be critical. But as children get  older, it’s important for parents to have conversations with them and to  establish times for them to be offline. Monitoring apps such as Bark or OurPact  work best in concert with conversations around use, not in lieu of  them. Of course, what works for one family might not work for another.  But as a rule, it is often more effective to put rules in place  proactively rather than to try to cut back on screen time once a child  has already developed screen habits. Another good option is to provide  natural steps for incremental usage — say, starting with a flip phone  and then moving to a smartphone, or creating an environment in which  access to a smartphone or screen is the exception rather than the  default.

“The only thing that works [for us] is  very rigid rules,” says Mike Popek, who worked at Google for nearly 14  years in different management roles — and went to junior high and high  school with me. He and his wife have three children, ages 9, 7 and 3,  and live in Palo Alto.

His older children are  each allowed an hour of screen time per night at the computer in the  living room — but only after homework is done and dinner has been  served. The family makes no distinction between educational videos and  interactive experiences and scrolling through information online during  that hour. So even though his kids use screens on a regular basis, he  admits that “we’re probably stricter than most.”

“There’s  no way you can just say no to screens. It’s not possible,” says Popek.  “They’ll be at a huge disadvantage in their lives if they have no  experience with this type of technology.” Some area parents may disagree  with him, such as those whose children attend the Waldorf School of the  Peninsula, which is often cited as the screen-free zone where  technology executives send their kids. The Waldorf community is tiny,  though, serving fewer than 400 kids in an area with more than 15,000  students. And even Waldorf uses computers as teaching tools in high  school classrooms.

Melanie Wendt, a school  therapist at a public middle school in Silicon Valley, deals with these  issues both at work and at home. The students she sees — some of whom  have parents in tech — spend much of their time on their phones and  playing video games. She and her husband established boundaries for  their own boys, ages 8 and 10. Her older son has an iPad, which he uses  one to two hours a week, and the boys have an Xbox. But they are not  allowed to play shooting video games, instead spending time on FIFA and  other sports games.

She feels the single most important strategy to promote healthy online and real-life experiences is to be consistent.

Wendt  has found that her sons are more aware of their own screen use and the  use of others. They’ll notice when they are out eating dinner and  everyone at a table near them is engrossed in their phones. “I feel like  I’ve raised awareness,” she says. She thinks it doesn’t make sense to  take a draconian approach to limiting technology use. “By cutting  something out of their life, it makes it more interesting. That’s why we  decided not to completely take it away.”

Dan  Zigmond, director of analytics at Instagram, has two daughters, ages 16  and 18, both of whom have smartphones and regularly spend time online  and using different apps. For him, “it’s less about having strict rules  and more about just having lots of conversations about it.” His children  will call him out if they think he is on his phone too much, and as a  family they don’t have screens at mealtimes. They will “sometimes take  vacations where we’re completely off the grid.”

Helping  children and teens create consistent, compartmentalized time offline is  key, though what that looks like can differ depending on children’s  ages and their susceptibility to overusing technology. Keeping phones  out of the bedroom at night and tracking, monitoring and shutting down  usage with tools such as Apple’s Screen Time or Google’s Family Link can create consistent structure and conversations around awareness.

I  occasionally meet parents who try to shield their kids from technology,  and that can quickly become counterproductive, given that so many kids  communicate using devices. A few years ago, a ninth-grade girl and her  mother came into my office because the daughter was miserable at her new  school and wanted to transfer. Within a few minutes, I discovered that  the mother refused to give her daughter a phone, reasoning that her  daughter’s new classmates “could call our house if they wanted to make  plans.” But most of her daughter’s classmates were texting or messaging —  and her daughter felt alone and ostracized.

That  ninth-grader’s experience relates to a recent Pew Research Center  report, Teens' Social Media Habits and Experiences, which found that 81  percent of teens feel more connected to their friends using social media  and that 69 percent feel as though social media helps them interact  with a more diverse set of people. At the same time, teens still  struggle with information overload and what I call the  all-about-the-likes personal values development, in which likes, loves,  comments and followers have become the new barometers of popularity.

Katy  Roybal is director of education technology at a Silicon Valley  independent school with an iPad program. She is also the mother of three  boys (a college freshman, a high school junior and a second-grader).  She stresses that kids should recognize the importance of controlling  their own device and what they put online.

To  help tweens and teens become more aware, I recommend parents require  kids to do a little research before downloading any new apps or opening  new online accounts. Who founded and created the app? Have there been  any recent related scandals in the news? Can they find out anything  about the app’s data privacy and cybersecurity issues? This process of  investigation can help kids actively reflect on how and where they  should spend time online. And, I should add, it’s no less applicable for  apps that are marketed as educational, as the FBI recently warned.

In  the end, as Instagram’s Zigmond puts it, “the basic issues around  parenting and helping to set boundaries and helping kids make healthy  choices around all kinds of things are kind of the same, no matter  what.” Parents around the country are more in line with Silicon Valley  parents than they might believe: We’re all trying to figure it out in an  ever-changing digital world. It’s a good idea to keep up the pressure  on companies to protect children. And less shaming and more proactive  solutions will go a long way in creating a safer, happier, healthier  world for kids online and in real life.

Ana Homayoun is an author of three books, most recently “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.” Learn more about her at or follow her on Twitter at @anahomayoun