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In The Age Of Smartphones, Parents Are Encouraged To Be Media Mentors, Not Gatekeepers


Parenting in the age of smartphones can be really stressful. Health experts from the World Health Organization on down say we should limit kids' screen time to a, quote, "healthy level." But infants aside, that doesn't mean zero. There's a growing push to encourage parents to be media mentors rather than gatekeepers. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has looked into this for our Life Kit parenting podcast. She's here to talk us through it.

Welcome back to the program, Anya.


CORNISH: Define media mentoring for us.

KAMENETZ: So the philosophy behind this is pretty simple, right? It's trying to use digital devices together with your children as much as you can and assisting them in understanding what it is that they're doing on those devices. So one proponent of this is Mimi Ito. She's a researcher at the University of California, Irvine. And she says we need to face the facts that media, especially things like video games, are a major source of fun for kids.

MIMI ITO: Unless parents can find a way to somehow understand and engage with that in a positive way, video games can often become a source of tension between parents and kids. And so we see time and time again that parents aren't engaged in the kind of mentoring and guidance around video games that they do for other parts of kids' play and growing up and friendship relationships.

KAMENETZ: So she says you need to get in there and play video games with your kids. And she also says that this is fun.

ITO: It's a lot more fun than clocking screen time and, you know, doing the finger-wagging thing.

CORNISH: I thought it was pediatricians who told us to do the finger-wagging thing. (Laughter) I'm a little bit offended by this.

KAMENETZ: I know, right?

CORNISH: So how does this work out in real life?

KAMENETZ: So I visited a family in Washington, D.C. - Chris Wallace, Latoya Peterson and their son Gavin, who's 5. This is Gavin.


GAVIN: (Vocalizing).

CORNISH: Good to know that game is still popular. I recognize the tune (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Oh, my gosh. Nintendo's having this incredible comeback. And that's his favorite stuffed animal ever - that somehow matches up the "Mario Bros." game plus Captain Marvel. Anyway, almost every night after dinner, this family jumps on the couch and plays big, complex PlayStation video games.

GAVIN: Oh, my gosh. You want to see what happens? Hit X, and it'll make a sound. See. They're trying to fake. He's a darkness guy.

CORNISH: What are they playing there?

KAMENETZ: OK, so it's a big game called "Kingdom Hearts" that has all these different Disney characters kind of on one universe. And they play other games together, too, even some that are not necessarily meant for young kids, like one called "Persona." Latoya Peterson says it's just certain parts of that game that are age-appropriate. She stresses this.

LATOYA PETERSON: Normally, he's playing with me. Normally, we play together.

KAMENETZ: And I should say, you know, all of this comes really naturally to Peterson. You know, she grew up playing video games, even though her dad didn't necessarily want her using his system.

PETERSON: I would just wait until dad wasn't home, sneak into the room (laughter) and play.

KAMENETZ: And today, she's been really successful in new media. And she's the co-founder of an all-women-of-color-led video game company called Glow Up Games.

CORNISH: Can I ask something, Anya, here? Essentially, are they arguing that you can play video games along with your kids the same way you would read along with your kids and get some kind of benefit from it?

KAMENETZ: That's exactly right. When you are sharing media time with your kids, you're giving them the chance to understand better the messages that are coming across. You can learn social and emotional skills from this, just as you would from a story.

CORNISH: How does this square with health recommendations that kids should actually limit screen time, especially before bed?

KAMENETZ: So being a media mentor doesn't mean that you say yes all the time, and you're always handing out candy. The American Academy of Pediatrics says parents should keep your schedule, prioritize kids' sleep, outdoor play and family meals. And Latoya Peterson and Chris Wallace actually do all of this.

CORNISH: Are there certain things parents should be doing when they're using screens with their kids?

KAMENETZ: So consistently having conversations about what they're playing or watching is what experts call active mediation. And Latoya Peterson sees video games as an opportunity. She sees them as a way that Gavin can get comfortable with technology, to pick up new skills, not just tech skills, either.

PETERSON: One of the big things we're working on right now is the concept of resiliency and not quitting when something is hard. And games are great with that because the whole idea - like, I think we were in some castle. And he's like, Mom, this castle - 'cause I died, like, twice in this castle, like, immediately. And Gavin's like, Mom, this castle's too hard. We should stop. And I was like, Gavin, this is the point. Like, sometimes, things are hard, and you have to go back and try again, or you try something different. And I've noticed he does that in his real life.

GAVIN: Sometimes, you lose and lose and lose. And in "Persona," sometimes, when a monster kills us and gets our blue heart, we die. We lost. And that means our battle game is over.

CORNISH: Gavin sounds amazingly sweet. There are parents, though, who, let's say, use screens to occupy their kids so that they can get some stuff done.

KAMENETZ: I don't know what you're talking about. I've never done that.

CORNISH: I don't know parents like this. I know they're out there. So what if you can't make time to have this kind of hands-on interaction the way Chris Wallace and Latoya Peterson are doing?

KAMENETZ: So this is a key point. I'm glad you brought it up. Dr. Jenny Radesky - she is the pediatrician who lead-authored that American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on kids and media. So she's the rule maker. And she says that, yes, sometimes, kids are going to use screens by themselves. And what happens after that is you try to have a dialogue with them and ask them questions about what they're watching, what they're playing.

JENNY RADESKY: What do you like about this? And what seems annoying or creepy about it, too?

KAMENETZ: And Dr. Radesky says through these conversations, we can help our kids develop a bit of self-regulation around screen time, also.

RADESKY: Do you think it's OK to sit and watch slime videos for an hour? Like, what's good about that? What's not good about that?

CORNISH: This all makes sense when they're very young. As kids get older, they can be less interested in hanging out with their parents. Does this media mentoring idea work at older ages?

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, it can, according to Mimi Ito. She's the researcher at UC Irvine. Her children now are 18 and 21. But when her son was a teen she saw her role shifting.

ITO: To me asking a lot of questions and observing my son's gameplay and being more of a interested observer, supporter, cheerleader rather than somebody that was actually playing the same games.

KAMENETZ: So being that cheerleader and supporting her kids' interests - she credits that with kind of leading to both of her children now studying computer science, for example.

CORNISH: Finally, Anya, we've been talking about this in the context of video games. But for many parents, it's more likely to involve our smartphones and our tablets. How should we be mentoring our behavior with those?

KAMENETZ: That's a great point. So the point is here - our kids are watching and learning from us 24 hours a day, even when we're not being exemplars. So if you are constantly kind of pulled into your smartphone, they're going to absorb that that's an OK way to treat your family members. On the other hand, on the positive side, you know, most of us use technology in the course of our work, our personal passions to learn about the world, to discover new music, to keep in touch with friends and family. And those are all positive things that we can share with our kids by modeling that, as well.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: And Anya hosts NPR's Life Kit parenting podcast. The Life Kit series has practical tips on all sorts of things. You can find it at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.