Top Tech Execs Limit Kids’ Screen Time More than Average Parent: What do they know that we don’t?

In 2010, when New York Times’ tech reporter Nick Bilton asked Steve Jobs what his own children thought of the new iPad that was sweeping the nation, his response was a suprise: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Shocked, Bilton asked other top executives at tech companies what they do at home with their own kids. What he found was that while we are handing out iPads like candy to our first graders, many of the execs behind these electronic goodies are severely limiting their kids’ access.

What do they know that we don’t? Perhaps they believe what all the studies are saying, that too much screen time is bad for kids. It’s addictive. It takes away from reading, schoolwork, and other high-quality learning activities; And it causes social, health, and attention problems.

At the time of the interview quoted above, Jobs’ two youngest daughters were not three and five. They were twelve and fifteen! Yes, that’s right: they were at the age when most tweens and teens have already fully integrated their phones and tablets into their circulatory system.

Bilton found that this was not a strange anomaly in one eccentric man’s world, but a real trend across Silicon Valley. Turns out many big tech innovators, from the founder of Twitter to an editor at Wired Magazine—in other words, people who work in the wired world and know it best—have strict limits for their own children.

The New Technological Divide

In education, it is popular to talk about the technological divide in terms of the haves and have-nots. We worry about those students who cannot do homework or apply to college because they don’t have access to the internet, computers, or printers at home. We worry that they have a disadvantage. In my own city, we are getting ready to hand out electronic tablets to every kid in the district as part of our personalized learning network and equity plan.

But I think we’ll start seeing a new technological divide, a divide between those who put limits on their kids’ screen time and those who don’t. I already see this divide in my classroom. This is the divide between those kids who have attention problems, can’t sit still, lack focus, can’t follow simple directions, are always distracted, never finish books, text incessantly under the desk, think Facebook is a reading activity and Tweeting counts as an essay, and often rely on medications to keep them calm; and on the other side are the kids who can sustain their attention on a difficult task for a significant amount of time, can read and comprehend a newspaper article or a complex novel, can write a multi-paragraph essay with nuanced ideas. Kids who can think deeply and with fixed attention on a topic.

What the tech CEOs of the world know is that the kid who makes the next iPhone or Apple Watch is probably not the “average” kid who spends 5-7 hours passively in front of a screen.

This divide, according to a new study out of UCLA, will also separate the kids who know how to empathize and show compassion from those who have difficulty reading emotions in others (check out the full article in Newsweek, “Screen Time Makes Tweens Clueless on Reading Social Cues.”)

I see bits of this in my own home, as screens take over more and more. My family struggles as much as any in setting the right limits. The good news is that much of this is reversible. In the study mentioned above, five days at an outdoor, unplugged camp had a dramatic impact on kids’ social skills.

One problem is that there is a new normal we have not had much time to think about. It’s normal for our kids (and for us) to be almost constantly engaged in media. In fact, it’s hard to find a place where kids are not wired in. I brought home some Nooks from school thinking my kids could download library books on them. They figured out how to watch TV and play video games. With the Apple Watch arriving soon, Time magazine says we are entering the world where we will be permanently “on-line.” This is the singularity that futurists talk about. But is it the future we want?

Household Media Rules at Top Tech Execs’ Homes

So let us take a lead from those who know, the ones who run the tech business. During his research, Nick Bilton found that across the board certain rules held true when he asked those in the tech business how they handled electronic gadgets at home:

  • In many tech giant’s own households, children under 10 (yes the zero next to the one is not a mistake) are restricted from all gadgets and electronics during the school week. On weekends, limits range from 30 minutes to two hours on pads, TVs, and phones.
  • In general, 10-14 year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights only for homework. Clearly there is the message that education is a priority for these top tier techies, and they understand that texting and homework don’t mix.
  • Many top tech parents Bilton polled totally forbid their own teenagers from using social networks. There was a deep concern over protecting their kids from saying something online “that will haunt them later in life.”
  • A big surprise for me was the phone rules. In my world, phones can be found on kids eight and younger, and my own boys are always making a case for why they should have one now. For the top execs, 14 is the magic age when they give their own kids a phone, and that’s without a data plan! They’ll wait until 16 for that.
  • And the number one rule that Bilton found in the homes of technology CEO’s and venture capitalists across the board: no screens allowed in the bedroom. Even the chief executive of Twitter only allows his teenage kids to use their gadgets in the living room.

These are some strict standards, and certainly, perhaps, unrealistic for many of us (I know some young kids who need a phone because they don’t have a chauffeur and a nanny and all the school’s pay phones have been removed). Some might think, as I do, that it is a little hypocritical to be working in a field that pushes social media and phone apps at our children while limiting the same things for their own children. (Just as I wonder how often the top executives at McDonald’s take their kids through a drive-thru or let them crawl around in a play land.)

I find it scary, too, as if these tech industry leaders have some inside knowledge we don’t have. When I informally poll my own students who come from economically struggling neighborhoods, most tell me they have unlimited access to a staggering amount of technology, from phones, to multiple video game systems (my average male student has two stand alone game systems and two handheld), electronic tablets, computers, and, of course, full cable TV. And that’s just what’s in their bedroom. These kids are media rich, living the dream that Steve Jobs’ kids never had, and yet they can barely make it through a day of school let alone a difficult math problem, a complex text, or an extended lecture. My colleagues and I trouble over how we can teach big concepts in 1-2 minute chunks before, unfortunately, we lose their attention.

Technology is not evil. It just needs limits. And there is definitely a difference between passive and active media, between watching TV versus creating computer art, recording music, or coding.

Also, limiting too much could lead to over-indulgence in the future, like my son who wants to devote his adult life to video games and Mountain Dew—the two things he does not get enough of now.

But it should give us pause if the ones who are creating the media-saturated world we live in are also wary of its effects on kids.

For more, read Bilton’s original article, “Steve Jobs was a Low Tech Parent.”