Why the Creators' Kids Have 'Low-Tech' Parents

This week, parents learned that Steve Jobs was a "low tech" dad at home. His children didn't spend the evenings hopping from one glorious iPad to another. They had a regular family dinner and (gasp) read books.
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This week, parents learned that Steve Jobs was a "low-tech" dad at home. His children didn't spend the evenings hopping from one glorious iPad to another. They had a regular family dinner and (gasp) read books. Nick Bilton's New York Times article served as a wake-up call to many families about how big a role screen time should play in their children's lives. It also served as a small reminder to Americans that, in fact, we do have something in common with the tech industry's most successful CEO's; many of them are parents, too.

However, that's where the similarities may end.

Average American children spend six to eight hours a day attached to screens. "Yet these tech C.E.O.'s seem to know something that the rest of us don't," stated Bilton. He was referring to the stringent media rules which are well-established throughout the homes of Tech industry's top CEO's -- the ones who are also parents.

What did Steve Jobs know that you may have missed? Research for the book I co-authored, The Learning Habit, was compiled over a three-year period, examining family routines in nearly 50,000 homes in the United States with children in grades K-12. It revealed that after 45 minutes of media use, children's grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance start to decline. We discovered a 45 minute daily threshold for media consumption in children.

With this new information, it's certainly no surprise that common rules in households such as Steve Jobs's, Chris Anderson's, Alex Constantinople's and Lesley Gold's are: No electronics permitted in bedrooms and a maximum of 30 minutes of daily screen time use.

Patrick, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), has developed some of the most popular video games of our time. In a rare interview, he gave us a tour of his business, located just outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It houses nearly every video game ever made. His staff looks like a cult of über-cool 30- and 40-somethings, dressed in Vans sneakers, Dickies pants, graphic tees and touting three-day-old beards. Don't let the scruff fool you; each of these guys is worth well over a million dollars.

In "the testing room" full of rows of Xboxes and Nintendos, children are regularly engaged in beta testing the games. I asked the group of entrepreneurs if they have children, and they nodded their heads, yes.

Patrick, the father of five children, openly admitted that he does not allow his children to play video games.

"I let them mess around on the computer, but that's about it," he said.

Patrick said he didn't grow up a gamer. "I fell in love with design work as a kid. I spent all the time I could taking art classes."

When asked if he's familiar with the statistics on video game play and poor social skills in children, he laughed, saying, "Why do you think I don't let my kids play video games?"

We asked if he was aware of how addictive video gaming can be; he just looked at us, shaking his head. "Are you kidding?" he replied. "My entire career is based on that. The goal of developers is to make the most complex, most captivating, most addictive games they can. I don't let my children play video games for precisely that reason."

"If that makes me a hypocrite, then so be it," he said. "Look, I design games because I love the challenge; if parents just hand over my games to their children with no rules about their use, that's wrong."

According to researchers, unlimited games leads to social problems in children.

Researchers out of Brown University School of Medicine, Brandeis University, New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and others found that children who game more than 90 minutes a day are twice as likely to have social problems. This includes: difficulty making friends, an inability to join other kids in play, fear of trying new things and an inability to effectively communicate their feelings and needs.

In addition, a dedicated gamer is nine times more likely to get a failing grade in both English and math. Gaming can be just as destructive to a child's academic performance, social skills and emotional balance as other addictions.

The new digital divide is not "who" has the devices; it is "how" kids use them.

The Learning Habit asks parents to consider "how" children are using electronic devices. To educate parents, it divides up screen time into three categories: Media Consumption, Media Creation and Media Communication.

According to the New York Times, Ali Partovi, a co-founder of Code.org and adviser to Facebook, Dropbox and Zappos, believes parents should make a strong distinction for children between time spent "Consuming," (watching YouTube or playing video games) and time spent "Creating" on screens.

"Just as I wouldn't dream of limiting how much time a kid can spend with her paintbrushes, or playing her piano, or writing, I think it's absurd to limit her time spent creating computer art, editing video or computer programming," he said.

Ali Partovi's advice may lack balance for reasonable parents; nonetheless, research supports his general philosophy with regard to how media should -- and should not -- be used. In fact, after sifting through thousands of articles and studies, I was unable to find studies that showed Media Creation is not naturally self-limiting. When children are involved in a strenuous mental task, they have the ability to self-regulate (stop) after a reasonable length of time.

The problem may be that terms such as "Media Creation" and "Media Consumption" are still relatively unknown. After interviewing families throughout the United States for three years, I never found a single example of a child staying up all night writing computer code.

Unfortunately, I found far too many cases of exhausted children who slept with electronics in their bedrooms.

LEARN MORE: The Learning Habit gives parents research and case studies on real kids using media for consumption and creation. Information on nearly 50,000 parents who participated in the groundbreaking research project and includes information on Scratch, Code, TenMarks and many others.

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