Should screens tell kids to end screen-time?

Consumers demand more thoughtful design from companies
geralt, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
geralt, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

In January 2018, two Apple investors—who collectively own about two billion dollars’ worth of shares in the company—sent an open letter to the organization imploring them to consider the impact of the technologies they create on the lives and well-being of children and teenagers.

The investors cited research documenting children’s self-reported sense of “addiction” to their phones and asked if children and teens might be getting “too much of a good thing.” They pointed out that Apple offers little in the way of parental controls, and that the parental controls they do offer take an all-or-nothing approach, enabling parents to ban content or lock children out of a device but doing nothing to support children in finding balance in the way they engage with technology.

Are the investors right? Should Apple—and others—be doing more? What’s wrong with the parental controls that already exist, and if they need to change, what should be different? Are parental controls even useful for families?

In a survey study I ran with collaborators at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, I asked families what kinds of boundaries they set on technology use, and their answers shed some light on the types of limits parental controls might do well to support.

Parental controls don’t address the heart of the issue

Families reported that about half of their boundaries for children’s technology use are based on what kids do—policies like banning Grand Theft Auto or mandating that a child use a flip phone instead of a smartphone. These hard-and-fast limits are in line with today’s parental controls, which can filter out specific content and set fixed time limits.

But the other half of the boundaries families reported were about the context in which children use technology. Parents described their expectations for their children’s use of technology saying things like: Smartphones are fine in general, but they can’t come to the dinner table. Children can have social media accounts, but they can’t check them after bedtime. Playing video games for an hour each day is ok, but only after homework and chores are finished.

“They wanted children to follow guidelines that promote balance and enable them to reap the benefits of technology while also using it thoughtfully.”

These families agreed with the above-mentioned investors: they said that all-or-nothing boundaries aren’t enough. They wanted children to follow guidelines that promote balance and enable them to reap the benefits of technology while also using it thoughtfully.

But what surprised me most was not that families wanted balance. What I didn’t expect was that parents and kids both said that these nuanced guidelines are hard to follow. Children said that it was easier to stick with all-or-nothing rules than it was to abide by family rules that allowed them to use technology but required them to use it in context-specific ways (such as putting phones away during meals or while doing homework).

In a sense, families said that it causes less friction to set rules like, “No Snapchat ever” than rules like, “No Snapchat in the middle of the night.”

That means that today’s parental controls only cater to solutions with which families are already comfortable. And they don’t do anything to support families with the problems they find difficult. If rules about context are the ones that cause friction, then parental controls should provide features that facilitate children’s engagement with technology in line with a family’s preferences, but also make it easier to unplug at moments when families feel technology is distracting or inappropriate.

Auto-play features may hamper self-regulation

But what would it look like for parental controls to promote balance and support context-specific boundaries? Designers can definitely help, but the traditional lock-out mechanisms that characterize parental controls today may not be the answer.

In one recent study I ran with a team of collaborators, I gave kids a video player that let them construct a playlist and watch a series of videos. I compared what happened in two different cases: one where they had the ability to go back to the beginning and create a new playlist when the current playlist ended, and one where they were locked out once the playlist ended.

“The way a technology is designed influences children’s ability to regulate their usage, and Apple has the power to help or hinder families as they seek balance.”

What changed? Well, nothing really. In both cases, kids were equally likely to turn off the screen on their own and equally likely to fight with their parents about whether they could watch more.

But I also compared these two versions with a third version of the video player. This time, when the playlist ended, new, related content automatically began playing, just like the auto-play feature you may have encountered on YouTube or Netflix. When kids saw this extra content, things changed. They were more likely to keep watching videos, less likely to turn off the screen on their own, and more likely to fight with a parent about whether they had to put it away.

Having a lock-out mechanism in place didn’t seem to make things much better, but adding auto-play to try and keep kids hooked definitely made things worse.

Are the Apple investors right to push for more parental controls? Well, it’s clear that the way a technology is designed influences children’s ability to regulate their usage, and Apple has the power to help or hinder families as they seek balance. Implementing features that enable parents to place top-down restrictions on children’s behavior is not enough—and may not even help.

“Families are likely to be best served by respectful interfaces that understand their users will eventually want to disengage and know better than to forever auto-play more content.”

Instead, families are likely to be best served by respectful interfaces that understand their users will eventually want to disengage and know better than to forever auto-play more content.

To me, what is most exciting about the letter to Apple is that it signals consumer demand for more thoughtful design. More lock-out mechanisms may not be the answer, but if major companies begin designing products that respect users’ interest in balance and make it a first-class design principle, it will be a win for kids, parents, and everyone who makes technology a part of daily life.

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