Secrets Of...

Secrets of Unplugging

by Michelle Konstantinovsky

Moms- and dads-to-be are often inundated with information. But when author Anya Kamenetz thought about expanding her family a few years ago, she struggled to find answers to one pressing question: How does a person properly parent in the digital age?

“I’ve been covering the areas of education and tech for 10 years,” says the NPR correspondent. “As I was thinking about having a second child, I wanted a book like this but I didn’t really see one out there—so I decided to write it!”

The Art of Screen Time hit bookstores and e-readers everywhere this January, and Kamenetz has garnered rave reviews for her practical, evidence-based guidance. At the heart of her message is a reinterpretation of literary food hero Michael Pollan’s famous food rules: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”

So what does that look like in real life? “My husband and I make a mighty effort to have the phones tucked away in the morning and at family dinner,” Kamenetz says. “My toddler enforces this by grabbing the phones whenever she sees them and trying to dump them in the potty—simple but effective!”

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz

If you’re a parent—or someone who’s a little too attached to the warm glow of your iPhone—read on for more of the award-winning expert’s advice.

Expanded horizons. Let’s start with the positives: There are at least a few ways Kamenetz believes digital devices give current kids an advantage older generations never had. “I think first of the opportunity to satisfy our deep curiosity and let it lead us places we never knew existed,” she says. “When I was a kid, we had the World Book Encyclopedia and I loved browsing the local library; now I can find any book I want and read it in minutes!”

No rest for the weary. Now for the not-so-positive: “Probably the connection between screens and sleep,” she notes of the most frightening facts she encountered. “And how it can have long-term cumulative effects especially on kids’ developing brains.”

Creatures of habit. So are we all really addicted to our devices, or just … in close relationships with them? “Addiction is such a hotly contested term,” Kamenetz says. “I would say our phones provide a simulated or mediated access to some of the rewards humans crave most: novelty, information, human connection and approval. And these rewards arrive on an intermittent, unpredictable schedule, which is the type of conditioning that’s the hardest to extinguish.

Biology lesson. The rush of excitement from an Instagram “like” or a funny text isn’t trivial; the effects of our phones are rooted in physiology.

“For the youngest babies, the attraction is basically: Do something, get a response,” Kamenetz explains. “For children, it offers access to the hyperstimulation of games and all their favorite characters, who are like ‘super-peers.’ For teens, whose brains are especially tuned to rewards, it offers access to peers, which is their favorite thing in the world, or a structured, controlled reality of video games that is both soothing and stimulating.”

Keep calm. “I get a lot of questions about health effects from cell phone radiation,” Kamenetz says. “California released some guidelines on this topic late last year, largely to soothe people who are worried. Most studies actually show no dangers. That said, if you are worried, there are also very simple precautions you can take, like not keeping your phone in your pocket and not sleeping with it under your pillow. This is not something to get freaked
out about.”

Following the rules IRL. Here’s how Kamenetz abides by Pollan’s mantra: “Enjoying screens with my toddler means mostly taking selfies or video-chatting with the grandparents. Enjoying them with my older daughter means watching movies we both like—Groundhog Day on Friday nights—or sometimes my husband will help her with an app. ‘Not too much’ means she watches videos only on the weekends, for two hours max on both Saturday and Sunday; iPad time is restricted to 20 minutes, three times a week.”

Shut it down. “Background TV is distracting in a sneaky way,” Kamenetz says. “Unfortunately, studies show it can cut down on parent-child conversation by as much as 90 percent. This can lead to language delays!”

Digital Detox

Whether you love it or hate it, you’re probably using social media. But if you find yourself liking way too many posts about other people’s babies and dogs, it may be time to reevaluate your habits. Here are some tips and tricks.

First, you have to figure out what your goal is and why you really want to change. Anya Kamenetz


Clean your homescreen. You may not be able to stop navigating over to your networks on your computer when you should be filing expense reports, but making your phone a safe haven is a good start. “Disabling notifications and deleting the Facebook app helped me,” Kamenetz says.

Wean yourself off. “First, you have to figure out what your goal is and why you really want to change. I recommend building new habits a few weeks at a time and consciously un-pairing your phone with your daily activities. For example, leave the phone outside the bedroom at night. Now try to get out of bed and take a few deep breaths, and postpone the moment that you look at your phone. Now try to get through the whole morning routine. Now try leaving your phone in the entryway when you come home at night and reconnecting with your family for a few minutes without the phone in your hand.”

Get real with your intentions. “Before I go through the ritual of checking my apps, I ask myself, ‘Why? What is my purpose right now?’” Kamenetz says. If you’re just in it to size up your ex’s new fling or hate-stalk an annoying coworker … it might be time to put down the phone and go outside.

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