How Parents Can Curb Kids' Obsession With Smartphones

Jan 24, 2018
Originally published on January 24, 2018 3:33 pm

Parents are grappling with how to prevent their children from becoming too tied to technology. And others are worried about it as well. Earlier this month, two major Apple investors called on the company to help curb heavy smartphone use. But there are other ways of implementing parental controls.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Brian Barrett (@brbarrett), news editor at Wired, about some possible solutions.

Interview Highlights

On what kinds of parental controls smartphones are currently offering

“Starting with Apple, when you look at iOS, they do offer some parental controls, but they’re mostly binary. It’s sort of you can either have this feature on or off. You can have the camera accessible or not, and you can do it by app and by setting, but thinking of it as a toggle maybe isn’t the best way to do it. Maybe we need something a little bit more refined so you can say, you know, in certain situations you can do this, in certain situations you can’t do that. I think what people are looking at in terms of improving is not just what you’re doing when you’re actually holding the phone, but ways to keep you from going to the phone in the first place, reflexively.”

On how difficult parental controls are to navigate

“There are a few other systems that actually do seem to work pretty well that we can talk about, too. But part of the problem is that they’re all kind of hard to navigate, especially when you’re talking about controlling something remotely. So in the home I think it’s a lot easier than when someone’s out in the world. But secondly, they’re ultimately pretty easy for kids to get around. Kids are smart they’ll find their way around these controls and these safeguards. They’ve grown up with these [phones] and so they know how to get around these things. So really, when you talk to people who study this and who spend their lives looking at this problem, they don’t point to specific software or hardware solutions, even though those can help. What they say is, ‘Look, you need to be able to communicate with your kids and teach them how to use these devices responsibly, even when you’re not there. Because there will come a time when you won’t be.’ ”

On recommended software or hardware solutions

“I think you can look at it as either a software or a hardware solution. On the software side, you’ve got programs like Net Nanny, is a very popular program. What Net Nanny will do is it’ll automatically filter out, you know, the obvious pornographic sites, adult content. Also, you can set it to where it will blur any curse words that come up on the internet. On the hardware side, you’ve got devices like Circle with Disney, which, it works with your Wi-Fi, and that gives you control over every device that’s on your Wi-Fi network. So you can, sort of down to a very specific level, say, ‘OK, Tom can’t use his iPhone from 8 to 10 because that’s when he should be doing his homework.’ And, you know, ‘Melissa can’t use her iPad after 7 o’clock because that’s bedtime, because she’s a little younger.’ Whatever it is. So you can really fine-tune your solutions to your family, specifically. There are a lot of routers that do this kind of thing. There’s a lot of software that does this kind of thing. But that’s the basic controls. You can set limits on time and limits on sites, and that’s a good place to start.”

On alternatives to outright restriction

“If you want to think of it in terms of outright restricting access to the internet, maybe think about ways to make it more productive. So Amazon has a line of tablets that are kid-focused, and as part of that they have something called ‘FreeTime’ where kids can go and play with apps, watch movies, all in the sort of controlled environment. As part of that, though, Amazon has recently introduced something called ‘discussion cards’ where, after they experience whatever it is — an app, a game, show — it’ll ask them questions about how they experienced it. What did they think about it? What did they learn from it? And parents can then see the response to those questions and maybe kick off a dialogue. The ideal scenario is that you are with your kids when they’re interacting with the stuff and doing it in real time. But, you know, practically that sometimes doesn’t happen. So this is maybe the next best step to at least make it interactive, engaging and to really get a sense of not just what your kids are doing online but how they are processing it.”

On the app “Forest”

“Forest — which I recommend for adults too — Forest is an app, you open the app, you plant a digital tree and it will grow for as long as you stay in the app. And if you leave the app, it will wither and die. And the idea is to sort of game-ify putting down your phone. So the longer you can put your phone down, and not fiddle with other apps, and go to Snapchat or your email, the longer this tree will thrive. And it works to a point. I mean, it’s more fun way to try to get you off of your phone than just sort of locking it in a closet somewhere.”

On what a company like Apple could do

“There are some mechanisms Apple could potentially use, and they say that they’re looking into it. One thing that I’ve heard mentioned as a possibility — and I don’t know that this is what they would do — but would be controlling the types of notifications that you get. Right now, your phone sort of defaults to, you get inundated by notifications from any app that wants to send them to you. And it’s that barrage that causes you to, ‘Well, I’m going to check Instagram because it’s telling me to. And then while I’m there, I might as well check five or six other apps.’ So if you have a default that instead puts you in sort of a ‘zen mode’ where you don’t get notifications unless absolutely necessary, that maybe reduces the impulse to pull out your phone in the first place. And that’s something Apple can control. But, ultimately you know, this is hardware. It is a device. It’s a gadget. You buy it, and you have to have a certain amount of responsibility here, as well.”

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