There is no denying – or escaping – this one simple but far-reaching fact: Americans are surrounded by screens. As a doctor and a journalist, but most important as a dad to teens coming of age in a screen-infused world, I’m concerned. Technology certainly makes our lives easier (and more fun), but at what cost to our health?
In the new season of the podcast “Chasing Life” – my most personal yet – I explore how technology affects brains, especially developing brains, and what we can or should do about it. I’m talking to experts and doing something I’ve never really done on my podcast before: I’m speaking to each of my kids – the real experts.
A couple of statistics jumped out at me: About two years ago, roughly 85% of US adults reported being online at least daily, with 31% saying they were online “almost constantly.” And as of last spring, for teens, the numbers were even higher: A stunning 97% report being online every day, with 46% saying they’re online almost constantly, according to Pew Research Center surveys.
Those numbers are worrying but not surprising. We’re obliged to do so much on our screens for work and school. But we also do things for fun, like killing time on TikTok or doom-scrolling the news. Add to that constant communication; we text, Snap and Slack throughout the day. You get the digital idea: It’s easy to be on our screens a lot.
I started this journey by talking with each of my daughters, all proud digital natives and Gen Zers: Sage, 17, Sky, 15, and Soleil, 13 – in my tiny basement studio. (Even if you don’t host a podcast, I highly recommend sitting down with loved ones and having uninterrupted, face-to-face conversations on any important topic. You will learn so much!)
Now, most parents think their kids are smart, and I am no exception. I found our conversations to be very thoughtful, with good insights. And they did not hold back.
Sage made the important point that “it’s good to detach from social media and from technology, but … I don’t really think, realistically, someone in our society could just detach from social media and still be up to date on everything going on in the world.” She estimates that, of the time she spends on her smartphone, 40% is devoted to consuming content, like Instagram reels, and 60% to communicating, mostly on Snapchat.
And she’s right: It would be hard and isolating, especially for a young person, to be completely off everything. Sage also said she couldn’t see herself still using social media like Snapchat at age 20, 30 or 40, because that would be “embarrassing” – but she can’t envision using another platform to communicate, either.
Sky told me she’s happy with how she manages her time: spending about three hours a day on social media, texting and playing games. I was relieved to hear that she doesn’t let it get in the way of her homework, but I was a bit surprised when she said that on occasion, she lets it interfere with her sleep (but only on the weekends, she assured me).
When I asked my youngest, Soleil, about whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to grow up with all this technology, she answered like a Zen master: “I just think it’s a thing. I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing. … There is not much people can do about it. It’s just a thing.” She also reminded me that this was the world handed to her, not the one she would’ve chosen.
All three of my daughters told me they would’ve preferred the Millennial childhood, where cell phones existed, but not smartphones or social media. These platforms, they tell me, create an obligation to engage, more than a desire. “I don’t want to let my friends down,” Soleil told me.
My daughters all think today’s teens and those of future generations will have to figure out how to control themselves, just as people do around temptations like chocolate and potato chips.
I also learned what they think about my and my wife, Rebecca’s, parenting decisions around screens. As part of the Gupta House Rules, we decided to make the kids wait until middle school before giving them smartphones. We have access to their social media accounts and set time limits. We also try to have family dinners every night, when we all cook together and everyone’s phone – including mine – is put away.
But now, after having talked to my daughters and quite a few experts, I question whether we provided the proper guardrails. I would never toss my car keys to a 16-year-old with only a learner’s permit and say, “You’re on your own!” But I wonder if I did the digital equivalent.
Talking about screens and limits makes me feel vulnerable. I constantly ask myself, am I doing the right thing? Am I being a good dad? Am I too strict or too much of a pushover?
As a doctor, I am used to having the answers – and the data to back up my beliefs – but this is one area where I don’t. These are uncharted waters for me, and for parents (and people) everywhere. There is no handbook, no agreed-upon best practices. Because this is all so new, the studies haven’t been done, and in fact many of the questions haven’t been formulated yet. Even when we get a handle on one question, five new ones crop up. It’s like a hydra, the mythical water serpent that grows two new heads for each one cut off.
On the one hand, I worry about imposing my values, derived from US culture in the 1970s and ’80s, on my kids and their current situation, much like my parents did to my brother and me with their 1940s Indian culture. To us, it felt like their antiquated beliefs were woefully out of step.
But on the other hand, as a parent, it unnerves me that I can’t rely on that very thing: my own experience. Whether we choose to follow in the footsteps of our parents or decide to do the opposite, we usually have reference points to guide us in decision-making in our families. But with screens, I can’t say, “This is the way we used to do it when I was a kid,” because nothing so all-encompassing existed back then.
Let’s face it: Screens and technology are not going away any time soon (or ever). For many of us, this sprawling topic of screens and technology has so many strands, which overlap and merge into a giant conflated mess. I hope that by focusing this season on some of the more germane issues and exploring them in depth, I can help unravel the knots. I know I feel better for having a bit more clarity, because we all – especially Gen Z and those who come after – need to learn to use and manage them in ways that enhance, not diminish, our lives.
Join us this and every Tuesday on “Chasing Life” as we learn to optimize the screens – and the amount of time we spend on them – in our lives.