Screen time — How much is too much? What’s the right kind? — is one of the biggest issues facing modern parents. The iPad is less than 10 years old. But since its April 2010 release, it’s had a seismic impact on American families. Young children find its touchscreen easy to navigate and its seemingly endless array of apps, games, and shows impossible to put down. Modern parents have become used to seeing their kids’ faces bathed in a smartphone or tablet’s pale blue light. The combination of new technology and compulsive behavior has created widespread anxiety over screen time. And it has created a new market of screen time experts helping parents whose children may have a screen addiction.
Enter Emily Cherkin, the Screen Time Consultant. The Washington State educator and mother of two started advising Seattle-area parents and schools about the healthy way to approach screens in July of 2018. These days, her services are in high demand. She regularly facilitates screen time parent workshops and school presentations around Seattle and the entire world, and was featured in the New York Times as well as on The Today Show and Australian television. Her expertise and advice are sought-after commodities.
“I come to this as a parent,” Cherkin, whose children are 8 and 11, says. “I’m a former teacher, but I really understand this challenge as a parent.”
While a number of parenting coaches advise families on screen time, Cherkin is, as far as she knows, unique in her focus on screen time. She stresses that she’s not tech-averse — in fact, her husband works for a tech startup. Rather, she urges parents be “tech-intentional” and make active, informed decisions about how kids use devices instead of using a relatively new and not yet fully understood tech as a toy, babysitter, or pacifier.
“The iPad originally wasn’t designed for kids,” she said. “It was an adult device. I remember giving it to my husband as a birthday gift. So even the thought of an iPad being a device for children is a less than eight-year-old problem.”
Fatherly caught Cherkin for a wide-ranging chat about technology, children, and what parents can do to get their kids away from their iPads, iPhones, and screens in general At least once in a while.
I’m going to start with a self-serving question. My 5-year-old watches about an hour of shows on an iPad most nights. Is that too much? What’s your advice?
In general, I know parents like to get a number. They want to know how many hours is too much and how often. And what I will say is that is pretty unhelpful. But I think it’s an important message, which is that a lot is too much and a little is okay. And the reality is that it is just really dependent on the kid and the family.
You’re a screen consultant. Why does the world need someone to do what you do? Haven’t kids watched TV for generations now?
I hear parents say, well, I watched TV all the time as a kid and I turned out fine, and I will say yes, and that may be true. But TV today is not what TV was when we were kids.
When I was a kid, if I wanted to watch The Cosby Show, which isn’t a great example anymore, as a kid, it was on Thursdays at eight o’clock. I had to wait a whole week to watch the next episode. Our children have no concept of waiting to watch something. They can watch what they want, when they want for hours. For our parents it was easier to turn it off because, well, the show was over. It wasn’t going to leap into six more episodes. The other thing is that family TV-watching used to be a much more of a family experience. We’d all gather around and watch the same shows or you and your sibling would fight over the remote or who got to change the channel.
And that was a pretty normal fabric of family life. Today, if we watch something as family members, we tend to sort of each take our own devices off. Maybe we’ll all sit on the couch together, but we’re all in our own world doing our own thing. To me, there is a loss in that experience.
There’s been a delay in realizing that we gave this shiny fun thing and it seemed really cool and now we’re going, oh dear. Like this kind of Pandora’s box thing has happened and it’s not necessarily a good thing.
What led you down this path?
In middle school, a teacher gave us some lessons about advertisements. This was back in the day where you’d have to rip them out of a magazine and pass them around the classroom. There were no projectors or anything. I think we were looking at beauty ads, lipstick or whatever, and it was the first time that a teacher said to me, you know, that this ad is selling more than the lipstick.
That this is about how we look at women and what messaging it tells us about girls and how we should look. And it had never occurred to me. And so that was actually kind of the beginning of this interest I had in media literacy. And so as a teacher, I would sprinkle that in, even when I was a seventh grade English teacher. If you can relate to your kids, that’s the best way to get a good teaching relationship. So I would ask them about the things they were interested in. And then at the same time, this was that upswell of Myspace, you know, that early social media stuff. And then that pivotal moment probably with that, when those kids pushed back on me and said wait a minute, it’s not us, it’s our parents who like that. That was a big “aha” moment for me.
Do you see screen time as addictive?
I talk to parents a lot about this idea of persuasive design, because I think it’s a concern that is really important and not very well understood. These apps and products and devices are designed intentionally to keep us on them. With a TV, you have to pick the channel and the time and sit and watch and go through those advertisements.
We could look at the concerns about holding an iPad within 12 inches of our eyeballs. What is that doing to our posture, to our eyestrain, to our necks? Because it’s not a TV across the room that we have to look up at. It’s in our laps and we’re looking down. So even just mechanically, what impact is that having on our kids’ bodies? I was talking to a pediatric physical therapist and he said that he’s getting kids in his practice constantly who have what he called “tech neck” — that the backs of kids’ necks are hurting from bending their heads forward so much.
Can’t kids use phones and iPads as learning tools, with educational apps and so forth?
I think the problem is when parents try to say that when she uses the iPad she’s learning how to read. Well, that might be true, but there’s more to it. Sometimes, I think parents find that it helps them alleviate their own guilt about how much time their kid spends on the iPad.
You need to ask, “Has my daughter played outside? Has she done any art projects? Has she read some books, has she played with her Legos? Is she doing these things that are good for her because she’s a child and play is how children learn, or am I just automatically defaulting to the iPad because it’s easier for me as a parent?” Often that answer is yes, it is easier and that’s why we do it.
But if you can make those other things happen, it displaces some of that time. And this is easier for younger kids. When you’re a parent you have more control and more say in what they do and how they spend their time. And so that’s why I really love talking to parents, especially of younger kids, because it’s never too late to start talking about this. And the earlier the better. Like, even babies — I talk to newborn baby parent groups, because I want them to be thinking about this from day one. And a lot of it too is about modeling. You know, as parents, we’re really guilty of misusing our devices pretty much everywhere we go. And again, I’m totally guilty of some of these things.
Parents come to me and say they need help getting a 15-year-old off of Instagram. And I’m, like, you probably should have come to me five years ago, which I know you didn’t know you needed to. But it’s much harder to work with the older kids. And then I also had to ask, what has your daughter been seeing you doing for the past five years with your phone and your use of technology.
It seems like you’re saying there’s a big opportunity cost that comes along with screen time.
With a 5-year-old, she’s in this prime brain-building stage right now where she is starting to build these executive function skills in that prefrontal cortex. So these are things like organization planning, prioritizing, time management, emotion regulation, and cognitive flexibility. These are really important life skills. It’s been suggested that that part of your brain is not even fully developed until you’re 25 years old. So you’ve got 20 years of building these skills.
How can we make sure that those kids are building those skills and not being displaced by using technology all the time? I would argue an iPad doesn’t build those skills. Maybe a few things here and there. She might learn how to, you know, read really early. I always get parents who are like, well, my kid learned how to read by kindergarten, but that’s actually developmentally inappropriate. You don’t learn to read early, and then you’re going to have future success. There’s no correlation there.
Why do you make a point to call yourself an optimist in your introduction on your website?
Because it’s the thing that gets me up in the morning. I feel like I can make a difference. I feel like I can help people. I’ve always been like that. My mom calls me a Pollyanna — and if that’s a dated reference, I don’t know what it is — but I am very much the-glass-is-half-full because otherwise what’s the point? And because I believe in kids. I want to make sure they’re getting all the really good brain-building human connection that they can.
Does your optimism influence your work or your views on technology?
Fear isn’t a good motivator. I have trouble with some of the books out now that express gloom and doom, our kids’ brains are mush, everything is terrible. Because the reality is that even if I don’t love how much technology has taken over our lives, it has, and it’s not going to go back. But I’m optimistic that it will shift a little bit and that there’ll be a little bit more awareness and balancing-out. I’d love to see things like some regulation about marketing to kids, for example, or some sort of limitations. I wish schools would do a better job of banning devices from the schools.
But I’m not anti-technology. I am tech-intentional. So it’s about a choice that we use at a time and a place.
What’s a common misconception you run into a lot about screen time?
One big part of this that gets left out all the time is the role that technology is playing in schools. There’s a huge issue right now, especially for kids fifth grade and up, where schools require kids to have technologies to do school work. It might be a program like Schoology, where teachers post homework and assignments or Google classroom, which most schools use. It could be even something more extreme like a one-to-one program where your kid in kindergarten has an iPad.
And that to me is a big concern. That’s the headline. We do not have longitudinal data to say that this is an effective way to teach 5-year-olds because the iPad is only seven or eight years old.
I saw you worked with ADHD children and adults. Is there a connection between that and your interest in screen time?
I would have to double-check the actual research because I’m very careful about what I cite. I want it to be evidence-based, legitimate research. What I know, and I find this fascinating, is that the symptoms of screen addiction, if you write them on a piece of paper, look exactly like 99 percent of the famous ADHD symptoms. That’s fascinating.
It’s interesting to think that just as this technology swell is happening, so is this ADHD diagnosis, right? And is it always because one is affecting the other? don’t know. I don’t know the research on that, but it’s super interesting and I have a hunch that there was some misdiagnosis happening. I think as you work with ADHD kids and ADHD centers or even adults, the very first screening questions should be about how much screen time you’re getting. And we do know that kids with ADHD are more prone to other forms of addiction. And so screen time is one of those.
What’s your personal media consumption like? What’s your family’s media consumption like?
Like many other iPhone users, I have that lovely screen-time app. I looked at it at one point and was horrified. It’s a humbling moment. I’ve made some changes that have helped me dramatically. For example, I deleted the Facebook app and Instagram. I actually deleted Instagram entirely. I can still look at Facebook on my computer, but I have to be really intentional. I have to go sit down at my computer and turn it on to do that. So I do use it occasionally, but I was scrolling many hours a day, probably. It was a time waste.
I turned off all my notifications. So the only sound my phone makes is a phone ringing, which has helped tremendously. So even my text messages are silent. I never miss anything because the reality is my phone is always pretty close by. So I often recommend that to parents. I will say my guilty pleasure this summer has been solitaire, strangely enough. But I have found that the ads that pop up are so informative. Like, I’m noticing and trying to just see here, I’m justifying this as part of my work because I’m learning about how ads are distracting and how they’re targeted at me personally.
We’ve made some family rules. We don’t allow phones in the bedroom at all. You know, they charge out in our living room, but honestly that’s like 10 feet from my bedroom. So it’s not far. I can hear the ringer if there’s an emergency.
Did you ever have issues with screen time with your family?
Early in my work, we’d been talking to our kids about it. My son Max was probably about 8 at the time, and my husband had gone to lie with him in his bedroom at night and had pulled out his phone and started scrolling while Max was trying to go to sleep. Max sat up and looked at my husband and said, “Daddy, I can’t compete with your iPhone.”
It was a really humbling moment for my husband and me. We’ve made some big changes and he’s absolutely right. He was absolutely right. I cannot compete with your iPhone. And you know, that’s what’s happening — I think kids feel like they have to compete with the devices.
Finally, what’s the hardest part of being tech intentional?
The biggest challenge to parents is consistency. It’s so easy to cave. And I will say after a week they stopped asking, and then we flew to the East Coast without screen time. And it was … I had to pack different ways. I had to entertain my kids on the plane more than I ever had. But I will tell you, it was awesome. And then it improved their relationship to each other. They started reading more. I mean it sounds obvious, and yet I was shocked by how much of an impact it had.