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Author Of 'The New Childhood' Advises Parents: Don't Panic About Screen Time


The week between Christmas and New Year's is a celebration of family, togetherness and, for parents, observing your children losing themselves in screens big and small. And really at any time of the year, it's hard not to get a chill of anxiety when you see your kids so immersed in the pixellated world of Minecraft, Mario and Fortnite. But Jordan Shapiro says calm down. He's the author of the book "The New Childhood: Raising Kids To Thrive In A Connected World" and joins us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show.

JORDAN SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me, great to be here.

ELLIOTT: So your message is stop panicking. Really?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. I think you should stop panicking. You know, I was listening to your intro. You said they lose themselves in their devices, but what if they're finding themselves in their devices? What if it's the - that's the way they're going to learn how to articulate themselves, how to live a fulfilled life, how to live an authentic life in a world that's connected?

ELLIOTT: I think, though, when we see our kids and they're hunched over with their screen and there are other people around, it just sort of panics you. You want them to engage with you.

SHAPIRO: I certainly understand that, but parents to some extent need to remember that this sort of obsessive behavior around toys of interest, games of interest, this is normal for kids. This is not unique to the devices. While I certainly get worried about my own children when I tell them come to the dinner table and they say, hey, let me just finish this one life, I'll be right there, that's certainly frustrating. But I want parents to sort of back up and realize that it's through play that kids prepare themselves for those sort of social interactions that you're so worried about. That's how all the research tells us kids learn to play - through play, they learn to interact with each other, to follow rules, the executive function skills - all of those good things come through play.

ELLIOTT: You know, you do a good bit of history in this book that I found interesting - the way you look back at the role of emerging technology in childhood and the way that people looked at it over time, that this is nothing new, parents sort of freaking out about something new that their kids got their hands on.

SHAPIRO: I mean, parents have always been freaking out. Doctors have always been freaking out. In my research, I found old newspaper articles in which physicians warned parents not to let their kids sit near the window on trains because their brains could not handle things going by so quickly - right? - that this would cause neurological damage. We're not built to be able to deal with things so fast. You know, I think when you really look at it, what you discover is that so many toys, so many games, so many ways of playing arrived along with particular economic models and particular technological models of our society. And so I don't think that anyone intentionally said, hey, let's create this in order to prepare kids to be factory workers. But nevertheless, those toys arose, and those toys taught kids how to play in ways and how to habituate themselves to the behaviors that make it easy for them to adapt into the adult world around them.

ELLIOTT: You even wrote that people panicked about the printing press.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) A lot of people panicked about the printing press. That's absolutely true. But I think there was also a lot of panic about the idea that it forced people to be in a cocoon, right? Storytelling prior to the printing press meant you sat in a circle. You sat around a campfire. You sat at church. You sat in these group activities together. It was more like going to a movie or the theater or something where you would be with a storyteller. And as soon as you had books, people could go into a nook in the corner of their house and read by themselves and sort of isolate themselves.

ELLIOTT: And isolation is still an issue, right? That's one of the things I think I think about. If kids are playing video games or looking at screens in their rooms and they're not out playing and interacting, are they isolating themselves?

SHAPIRO: Well, I mean, that's a valid concern. I think most of the way they're playing now is connected. Most of the way they're playing is online. It's talking to people. You know, the Fortnite, which is unbelievably popular right now, involves lots of kids arriving together to play in a game all at once, right? They all have their headphones on. They're talking back and forth. If there's a problem in my house, it's too much talking back and forth, right? Sometimes I wish my kids would quiet down a little bit so I could play in peace - so I could work in peace while they were playing.

ELLIOTT: Hey, you had a little slip there. You play in peace you say.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I want to play in peace. Well, I think that's actually not a terrible slip because I think we have to remember that their play is their work and our work is our play, right? We often think of work as the thing that adults do, but we get very obsessed. We get focused on the work that we're doing and don't want to be interrupted either.

ELLIOTT: Now, you know, we've heard so much about, like, two-hour screen time, three-hour screen time. Do you put a limit on the amount of time per day?

SHAPIRO: I don't put a limit on time. I never have put a limit on the time. And the reason I don't is because I prefer to be positive. So I certainly require lots of other things besides screen time that my kids must do. They must read books. They must go outside. They must brush their teeth. But these digital devices, our phones, our video game machines, our iPads, our laptops, these are interactive tools. And they're involved in so much of what we do. And the idea that we would say, hey, two hours and then no more is sort of disingenuous to me, right? I think we need to be much more thinking about what they're doing on those devices.

My younger son is really into 3D printing. And so he'll spend hours using 3D modeling software to try to build these sculptures that he's going to print. Well, should I limit that to two hours? He's sort of deeply engaged in something creative and active that involves math and art and science. And I think that's a great thing that doesn't need to be cut off. However, if all he's doing is watching YouTube videos of people opening toys, I might have a different attitude.

ELLIOTT: Now, it does worry me a little bit to think that kids aren't outside as much as they should be. You know, you talk about somehow that these games can be the new skateboards. But I think you need sunshine. You need to get out and ride your bike, especially in this country where we have an issue with obesity among our young people. I mean, shouldn't we make sure that they put the screens down and go outside?

SHAPIRO: Actually, when you talk to most kids - right? - when they've done large surveys of large groups of kids, what they find out is the kids actually want to go outside and do that, but often it's the parents' restrictions, right? We're very scared of people being outside unsupervised right now. But more, what I would say is let's not frame those as opposites - right? - screen time or outdoor time. I would like to see them integrated even, right? There's so much that you could use technology for to interact with nature, right? So much of science is about using technology to understand the natural world. You know, they can go photograph nature. They can go measure nature. There's so much that they could be doing outside that's not one or the other. This idea that engineered technology is in opposition to the natural world is sort of against everything that science has always been about.

ELLIOTT: Jordan Shapiro, author of "The New Childhood: Raising Kids To Thrive In A Connected World," thank you for speaking with us.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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