Today’s guest is here to shake us out of the confusion around how to handle our kids’ screen time. The podcast welcomes its first dad/man, Jordan Shapiro, who wrote a super helpful book about how to navigate this new era of relentless technology as a parent, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. It’s got facts, research, history, and other sober analysis, along with plenty of parental anecdotes that aren’t fear-based, and dare I say are oddly comforting. In this episode, Jordan talks about the benefits (and also pitfalls) of screens in our kids’ lives, and how us parents are doing a disservice to our children by vilifying it. You might actually feel like apologizing to your kids after you hear what he has to say about it. Ask me how I know. We also discuss theories behind and ways we can better guide this generation and their screen use, Jordan’s own digital rules and boundaries for his kids, and the screen time change I made in our home that I thought would ruin our lives. So if you want to feel better about your kids playing video games, this episode is for you. I know the “wooden toys only” parents are freaking out right now.
Brandy: Hello, Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. I’m sorry you had to wait even for a day for this episode, because I feel like we all needed it about five years ago. But here it is, to shake you (and me) out of the confusion around how to handle our kids’ screen time. Today’s guest, a dad named Jordan Shapiro – you guys, the first dad/man to grace the podcast! Jordan wrote a super helpful book about how to navigate this new era as a parent, and it’s called The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. It’s got facts, research, history, and other sober analysis along with plenty of parental anecdotes that aren’t fear-based, and dare I say are oddly comforting? In this episode, Jordan talks about the benefits (and also pitfalls) of screens in our kids’ lives, and how us parents are doing a disservice to our children by vilifying it. Yikes. You might actually feel like apologizing to your kids after you hear what he has to say about it. I know I was a little embarrassed myself. We also discussed ways we could better guide this generation and their screen use, Jordan’s own digital rules and boundaries for his kids, and the screen time change I made in our home that I thought would ruin our lives (but didn’t). So pretty much if you want to feel better about your kids playing video games, this episode is for you. I know the “wooden toys only” parents are freaking out right now.
Brandy: I want to give a shout out and thank you to my newest Patreon supporter, Krista Long. Thank you, Krista. On to the show.
Brandy: Today on the podcast, we have with us Jordan Shapiro. Welcome, Jordan.
Jordan: Great to be here.
Brandy: So, I was on the hunt to find a podcast guest that had a realistic, yet educated take on screen time since none of us really know how the hell to handle this thing with our kids. I think we all feel a little bit blind, so I didn’t want someone who only advocated for wooden toys, and I also didn’t want someone who was like, “Yeah, it’s fine to play Call of Duty at the age of six.” I wanted somebody in the middle and who also was a parent themselves, and that’s how I found you, Jordan. I came across you and your international bestselling book, which is called The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, which actually put some of my personal fears about screen time to rest and even makes me think of screen time as good, and possibly even great. Like I might have finished your book and then been like, “Kids, why are you doing puzzles and drawing? Gather round the Xbox and learn how to be social beings in this modern world!” But Jordan, your book’s bio says you’re a world-renowned thought leader, a PhD, you teach at Temple University, you wrote a column for Forbes for five years, and you’re a fellow at various places where smart people collect. Wow, wow.
Jordan: When you say it, it sounds much more impressive than I feel.
Brandy: With all of these things, I was like, “And then that tops the last thing. Oh wow, and then this,” but what we love you for also is that you’re a dad, and you may not know this, but you are the first man to be on the adult conversation podcast, which is actually a really huge moment for all of us, so congrats on that.
Jordan: That’s great. Thanks. I’m so glad to be a part of it. I don’t know that many things are looking for their first male representation. Usually that’s not a problem things have, so that’s exciting.
Brandy: Seriously, because this has been a topic of conversation lately on having a space that’s for moms, but it’s not that dads can’t be here, so yeah. It was like perfect timing that you’re our guest, so I appreciate you being here and for bestowing all of your smartness on us and making us all feel better about our kids playing video games. So yeah, let’s get to that.
Jordan: Can I say one more thing about the being the first dad? I’m so glad that you mentioned that I’m a dad because one of the things when I was writing the book that I grappled with a lot was like, the last thing I wanted was to continue the tradition of male experts telling everyone how to be parents. It’s one of the reasons why I spent so much time just talking about my own personal experience, right? So this book’s all written from the perspective of just on the ground, playing with kids, raising kids, trying to understand them in the context of the other research I was doing, not from the perspective of first, “Hey, I want to be an expert to tell other people how to organize their lives.”
Brandy: Yeah, and that’s what I felt. When I researched you and then got your book, that’s what I loved about it. Had you just been some dude who was telling us about technology and how to do this, I would’ve never reached out, but because I saw that dad aspect, I thought, “Oh, so you’re not going to just tell us these things and then not have to fight with kids about it.” I knew that you would know what it was like to put these things into action, and I appreciated all those parts in your book because those are the things that we all go through too.
Brandy: Before we go there, what is something you think the listeners need to know about you?
Jordan: When I was in college, I worked in restaurants, and I was a cook. I even owned a restaurant at one point before I went back to graduate school. I’m a chef, but that’s not even the interesting thing. I once had job selling buffalo meat to restaurants. I was like a salesperson that went to New York City restaurants going, “You should sell a bison burger,” “You should sell bison steak.” That’s probably the weirdest job I ever had.
Brandy: So what was the major selling point when people were like, “Yeah, I don’t know if people are down with buffalo?” What was your line?
Jordan: It’s technically bison, not buffalo, although people use the words interchangeably, but one of the things we talk about is the American bison was almost extinct until they actually made it legal to have meat from it again, and then it was able to reproduce because there was so much behind it.
Brandy: I love the idea of saying like, “This thing was almost extinct, but we brought it back so we could kill it and try to make it more extinct.” Amazing.
Brandy: Moving on from bison, so tell us about your book, like maybe why did it need to be written, and what has the overall messaging about screen time and kids been? Was your book a reaction to that?
Jordan: I mean when I first started writing it, it was doing all the research. Before I ever got to imagining it as a book, I was just trying to understand what my kids’ experience was. It became really clear to me as I watched them that they were growing up with such a different set of experiences than me, and I started to think, “If I grew up doing one thing and they grew up doing another thing, that’s going to really impact the way you think and the way you make sense of the world as an adult, the way you start to organize meaning-making.” I don’t mean that from sort of the overly simplistic causal way a lot of us think about it, like, “If you play a violent video game, you’ll get violent.” There’s no evidence that that’s true, but clearly if you play certain kinds of things or spend time doing certain kinds of things, that does end up shaping the way you think about the world around you. I just wanted to understand it at the beginning.
Jordan: Then as I started to do that, I was sort of frustrated that everything I read was just not realistic. When I think about people who say, “Hey, no screen time,” that kind of thing, “Only wooden toys,” to use your language, I thought that’s just crazy. That’s not going to work in the world, and then the other side of me that went, “You know, these screens aren’t going anywhere. We can’t fight against them,” so it was much more about really believing that the conversation needed to shift and hoping that through putting together a book like this, I’d be able to reframe some of the discussion to encourage just a better way of considering the question. I mean, we’re so in this sort of “zero sum” game the way everyone talks about it, like, “Are screens good or bad?”
Brandy: Yes, yes.
Jordan: That seems like a dumb conversation to me.
Brandy: Yes. What were some of the key pieces that you learned or even things that surprised you when you started doing this research? Like you talked about something in the beginning, this technophobia, which I think so many of us have and for no real good reason.
Jordan: Yeah. I mean one was certainly, and in The New Childhood, I kind of go through a lot of historic technophobia. I think of technology just as a tool. Often these days, we say “technology” and we mean digital technology, but of course a chair is a kind of technology, right? A pencil is a kind of technology. Every single one of these creations of tools that changed the way humans interacted with their surroundings, you see this real panic build, and a lot of them sound crazy in retrospect. For example, at the beginning of the train, I mean I found newspaper articles about this, where physicians would say, “Don’t let your kids sit too close to the windows on the train because the human brain can’t handle images going by that fast, and it was surely cause neurological damage.”
Jordan: Which is absurd of course, but it’s just these sort of fears of the unknown. I think even larger, it’s a fear of seeing that the way that we organize our lives is shifting. It terrifies parents because they don’t know how to make sense of what’s coming, and so that was really interesting.
Brandy: Well, and I think too, one of the things that struck me that I had highlighted in the book, it’s like in the first couple pages, is what you were talking about with Socrates. By the way, to even say “Socrates” without saying “Sew-crates” takes so much work because of Bill and Ted. Sorry-
Jordan: Great reference.
Brandy: It’s like every time I say that, I have to, “Am I saying it right? Am I saying it right?” but just the fact that he was against the written word, and to think what that must have felt like once that passed, once the written word was something that became popular, and how that must’ve felt for people back then. Today, we always say – well maybe I always have said, “At no time in history has there been such a big shift in the way that we’re thinking and the tools that we’re using,” but actually there has been, and what a huge shift that must’ve been for people to only have oral stories and then to have things written. I’m just imagining these kids with these tablets, like the written word tablets, looking down and their parents going, “Oh look at their posture. Their necks are going to be horrible,” and how that’s similar to what we’re feeling now, and we think nobody in history had ever felt this way before. So will you talk a little bit about what was going on with Socrates being a hater of the written word?
Jordan: Yeah, I certainly will. I mean first, I think you said this so well, and it’s something I like to emphasize often, which is we have all this rhetoric about how we’re living in like the fastest change in history and our brains can’t keep up with innovation, which always felt so absurd to me. The reason I do it in the book is because I don’t think any technological advance in any of human history could possibly come close to what happened when they learned how to write, right? When they figured out symbolic communication. We’re still living through the ramifications of that. Our discussion of things like fake news, it’s still the ramifications of 4,000 years ago. So for us to think the iPod, like I think the iPod, the iPhone, it barely changed anything compared to writing. Yeah, lots of things changed once we had smartphones, but nowhere near what changed once they learned how to write things down. I mean we can go through a list of all the changes since; it would probably take us hours, but Socrates thought this was a terrible thing to do. When writing first happened, Socrates thought it made no sense-
Brandy: Wasn’t he worried that if you have something written down, it changes meaning because it’s no longer just however the orator wanted it to be?
Jordan: Yeah, exactly. One of my favorite quotes, and I’m going to paraphrase it because I don’t have it in front of me, he said something like, “Words are irritating because you try to add what they mean and they just say the same thing over and over again,” right? He also compared it to art, which he didn’t like that much either. To some extent, what I put out in the book, I mean I’m not the first person to say this, but he was right to some extent. We’ve spent thousands of years trying to figure out what Socrates meant because Plato wrote down his words, and we don’t know.
Brandy: That’s hilarious.
Jordan: So I have a PhD, and we argue. That’s what we do in philosophy departments. They argue over, “What did Socrates mean?” I mean on some level, they obviously do a lot more, but that’s the foundation of it. So he’s right. He was also terrified that it would make people depend on words rather than memory, right? Depend on written words rather than memory. “How would you remember things if you had books you could look them up in?” which we hear people worried at the time, “Kids think they don’t have to learn because they can see everything on Google.” Exactly the same worry, and he was right. We don’t care nearly as much about memory as they did in ancient Greece, but we got a lot of other benefits. I think this is core to the whole argument of the whole book, is that every technology comes with its negatives and its positives, and our job as parents is to help maximize those positives while limiting any liabilities that could come from the objects, right? But our job is certainly not to go, “Hey, I’m going to shelter you from the existence of the world.”
Brandy: Exactly. Well, and you talk about in your book something that so resonated, which is this idea of nostalgia. We have nostalgia for how we grew up, and so we want to pass that on to our kids, and actually by doing that, we limit them in a way when we say things like, “Well I didn’t grow up with screens, so you’re not going to be doing the same thing,” and, “I want you to be out climbing trees.” All these things are super wonderful. I believe in that for my kids as well, but there’s a certain point where it’s a little bit too much. We’ve all seen these kinds of kids whose parents don’t allow them to do any screen time at all and they don’t do iPads and video games, and all those things. Everybody can have their own way of doing it, but what you get is you get a kid who is isolated, actually, from the world, and who feels like they don’t belong and they can’t participate in kid culture, which is a way that kids feel connected. With this technophobia stuff, I think that when we have a fear of whatever the new technology is and we limit it so much with our kids, it’s actually to their detriment that we do that. That’s kind of what you were talking about in the book, correct?
Jordan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean look, we should certainly be concerned about how different things impact our kids. That’s our job as parents, right? We’re supposed to be attentive to the dangers, and kids should certainly be climbing trees. I’ve never even understood the dichotomy between digital technology and outdoor play. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I don’t see why you can’t do both.
Brandy: Right, right.
Jordan: I spend all day on a computer. I also walk in the park all the time. These are not things that are separate in any way, shape, or from. I think you got to it, which is it’s not good for kids to not be able to participate. There’s one sort of worry that your kid won’t be popular because they don’t have the same toys and can’t talk about the same games. There’s certainly some benefit to being concerned about whether or not your kids can fit into social groups in their school or wherever they are, but even more so, and this is what I really try to get out in the book, is that if you look at everything we know about child development, it’s always about building skills in ways that are mediated through either the technological conventions or the economic conventions or the cultural conventions of a specific context, and by “context,” I just mean time, right? I didn’t play with the same toys that my parents played with. My parents didn’t play with the same toys that their parents played with, but all of that play allowed us to build the kinds of social skills we needed to participate as adults.
Jordan: So I want my kids to be really good at using email when they grow up, really good at communicating in digital because they’re going to have to do a lot of it, and I don’t see a better way for them to learn that then to be playing a silly game with a headset and talking to each other or typing in a chat window. That’s how we learn those positive behaviors. Of course we should be worried that there might be inappropriate things happening online; we should protect tour kids from those, but we also need to teach them how to do the appropriate things.
Brandy: Exactly, and if we’re looking at it just scared, like if that’s the only filter that we see it through, like an example is my son who’s on Xbox. I’m just blown away when he’s playing with his friends the amount of conversation he’s having and how social it is, whereas when I was a kid, I was trapped alone in my room trying to get the raft on Zelda for like two weeks, right? So it was very isolated, but here he is, having conversations, figuring out how to invite somebody in their game, and the thing that they’re working on together. And what I appreciated in your book, these lessons that they’re learning in games are actually the same kinds of things that we wanted them to learn and that they do learn outside of games, but it’s kind of at an even more beneficial level. Can you talk about what you think the benefits are of screen time and video games and phones for growing kids? We’ll talk about some of the cons, but what are the benefits?
Jordan: Yeah. Well I think the first thing that people need to do to be able to see the benefits is to let go of this dichotomy of whether or not it’s screens or not screens. There’s lots of different kinds of play, right? Imagine there’s playground play and then there’s every other kind of play. Well that’s true on some level, but we don’t divide things into that. We think, “Hey, you should know how to play in multiple different spaces,” and one of the spaces that matters now very much is the digital space. Now we often find out that something negative happens in that digital space, like let’s say you find out about some cyber-bullying, okay? As an aside, I should mention that kids report still way more in-person bullying than they do cyber-bullying. That doesn’t mean it’s not a bad thing, but there’s way more of it in person. It’s not the computer that did bullying. We hear about cyber-bulling and we go, “Hey, we should get kids off chat rooms.” Imagine if you heard about bullying on the playground and you were like, “No more playground time for you.” That would be so absurd.
Brandy: That actually sounds like what my kids’ school does. Anything that causes a problem, “Oh, no more soccer,” “Oh, no more Pokemon cards.” They ban everything, but yes, I hear what you’re saying.
Jordan: That’s terrible. How do you teach them to have the appropriate kinds of conflict resolution?
Brandy: Right? Thank you.
Jordan: We should absolutely be 100% against all bullying. It’s a terrible thing, but it’s going to happen sometimes, and when it happens, that should be a teaching opportunity. That should be a time when we go, “How do we get everyone to think about feelings? How do we get them to empathize with each other by using this example as a chance to learn from it?” That’s what we need them to be able to do. I think that needs to happen while playing video games, while being on social media. So much of what I call for is parents and teachers and caregivers getting more involved in their kids’ digital lives so that we have the opportunities to teach them how to do those things. To use the playground analogy again, when my kids were really little, I would take them to the playground and I would help them climb. I would run around with them and go down the sliding board again. One, I started to teach them how to do things safely that way, like I taught them when to grab things, but even more so, I’m sure every parent listening knows that most of your time, if you’re in a playground or a sandbox watching your one-and-a-half to two-year-old is going like this, “No hitting,” “Share,” “Be nice,” “No hitting”-
Brandy: Right. “Don’t eat that.”
Jordan: “Share,” “Be nice,” “No hitting,” “Don’t eat that.” You just say these things over and over again. Well, we’re not doing that all in the digital space right now. Very few parents are doing that. Of course it’s full of bullying and bad behavior and inappropriate things. By the way, adults too: you turn on Twitter, you see a ton of horrible behavior by grownups. We really need to spend time with our kids going, “This is what I consider to be appropriate behavior for a digital public space.” I taught them appropriate behavior for restaurants, I taught them appropriate behavior for school, I taught them appropriate behavior for when they’re with relatives. They also know that there are different rules when they’re at home with me; there are certain bad words they can say when it’s just the three of us that they know they can’t say in public. There’s “code-switching” is what it’s officially called in developmental psychology, is kids learn how to switch codes. That’s why they know they can’t say things to teachers that they might say to their parents, or vice versa, or their friends. All kids sneak around behind the playground and curse with their friends, and then when they’re in front of the teachers and the parents, they pretend they don’t know those words at all, right?
Brandy: Yeah, exactly.
Jordan: They know how to do that. So how do we teach them to do that code-switching also for the internet? We’re failing at that miserably right now?
Brandy: Why do you think parents aren’t doing that? Do you think it’s because we’re so scared of it and we vilify it that we’re like, “Ugh, you’re on your screen. I’m not going to get involved in that,” or kind of because we’re disappointed in them for being on that, or because we don’t know how to handle it? Why are more parents not playing games with their kids, not in the digital realm with them? I mean aside from the fact that we all need a fucking break sometimes. Let’s be clear. I fully support that.
Jordan: Absolutely. I support that, too, and it’s one of the things that sort of has always bothered me. This starts to get to the answer: there’s all these guidelines that tell you things like, “No screens before two years old.” Look, absolutely, you don’t want a kid before two years old sitting all day looking at a screen, right? We want kids that little having a lot of interaction with adults, having what’s called serve and return interactions where I say, “Aren’t you happy?” and they giggle, all the things we do. When we talk baby talk, we know that that’s how you build young brains, but that guideline that says “before two” has got parents terrified of handing a kid an iPad for ten minutes. I wish there was an iPad when my kids were that little so I could take a shower and they wouldn’t cry.
Jordan: I had to bring them in the bathroom, put them in the bouncy seat in the bathroom, and I could barely shower even then because I had to poke my head out every 30 seconds so they didn’t cry, but I-
Brandy: Wow, you sound like a mom.
Jordan: Well, moms are terrified. Guess what? Nothing is going to happen if a kid watches a video for ten minutes. I’m certainly not saying, “Go give your kid a video all day long.” That would be bad if they’re under two, but ten minutes is not going to give them brain damage, right? It’s not going to do anything except keep them distracted. We sometimes need that break. So that’s one, but then when you have those guidelines, I think it creates this world of fear about it, and then we don’t interact with our kids around it; we think of it as this sort of forbidden thing they do, which also always seemed crazy to me. Like, “If you think it’s so bad, why would you let your kids alone with it for 40 minutes?” If I thought the screen was the devil, my kids would have zero screen time. I wouldn’t be like, “Yes, two hours is the limit.” I don’t give them two hours a day of cigarette smoking time.
Brandy: Right. I feel it because I play video games with my son-
Brandy: And it’s something that we love to do, and it’s probably because I grew up as a kid playing video games, so we are in that world together. But when he was younger and my daughter was younger, I was terrified that putting them in front of a screen was going to melt their brains or make them dumb or something. So, I also so get that technophobia, that place where you’re so worried about it, and I think too, you’re exactly right about the different guidelines that come out. How are we, and this is not even just with screen time; this is with foods, allergies, bed-sharing, breast milk versus formula. We are inundated with mixed messages that drive us nuts, so I think this is another one of those things where we’re not sure who to believe, and so we just are paralyzed.
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. I mean, look: I can’t talk to many of the other ones because I haven’t looked at them in details, but when it comes to the screen time ones, there is zero evidence that there is any toxic impact from exposure to screens, and they’ve been trying to prove that screens cause problems since the beginning of television, right? So we’ve got almost a century now, not quite, but getting close to a century, of people trying to find the problem with screens and still unable to find it. Now, there have been some evidence that suggests there’s a blue light problem that disrupts sleeping habits if it’s too close to bedtime, but that’s pretty much the only thing that I’ve seen, and I’m not even saying that that’s conclusive. I’m just saying that’s more convincing than anything else, but the reason that those guidelines exist by people who are very much concerned about kids’ wellbeing, who are putting together these guidelines, is because they’re saying what I was saying: if kids spend their whole days watching a screen and not interacting with people, that’s going to lead to major developmental problems if they’re under two. I should clarify that so people don’t think, “Hey, my 12-year-old does that” because that’s a whole different story.
Jordan: Yes, under two, they need to hear as much language as possible. They need to be touched as often as possible in ways that teach them to learn how to articulate different muscles, and they need grownups to help them do all of those things, and those guidelines exist because people were afraid that what would happen is the kid would be in the corner watching a video all day. Recently, I think it was at Oxford, they did a study where they tried to see the difference between kids who had followed those guidelines and kids who hadn’t, and they couldn’t find any difference.
Brandy: Ah, interesting.
Jordan: So those guidelines weren’t based on empirical studies; they were based on smart experts thinking, “What’s probably a best practice?” which is not the same as saying an absolute rule.
Brandy: Right, right.
Jordan: Right, and it is a best practice, I think, to keep your kids away from screen when they’re under two, but that’s not the same as a hard fast rule. If they’re screaming in a car, guess what? A little video might be the best thing to calm them down, and that’s okay. Not going to hurt them. I wouldn’t do it if it’s replacing time you’d interact with them.
Brandy: Yes, and I think one of the things you talked about in the book too that I see with my son is the fact that video games are like this modern day opportunity for kids to figure out how to do things, how to work together. So, on some of the stuff that my son does with Fortnite and the games that he plays, it’s like you have a certain amount of health that’s going down and you have resources you have to go get, and you have to build something. Like Minecraft I think is brilliant at this, and it helps kids figure out, “If I only have this much resource but I need to go do this, how should I allot my time and my resources?” When parents are looking at video games like, “Oh, that’s going to rot their brain” or whatever, there’s so much more that’s problem-solving that is happening and lessons that our kids are gaining. And another one of those is, I’ll never forget, I started playing MarioKart with my son when we was around five.
Jordan: It’s like the best game to play with kids, isn’t it? MarioKart. It’s so much fun.
Brandy: That day of my life, I felt like, “I now know why I became a parent. It’s to play MarioKart with you.” It was so good, but I remember we went to his birthday party; maybe it was like sometime within that year, and because we’d played MarioKart and he learned how to lose (because his parents are awesome at it), but also, he’s learned to win, he’s learned to lose. He learned through us how when somebody wins, how you tell them “good job” and you talk about what kind of cart worked and which wheels don’t, and all of these things. So we go to his birthday party that was at a bowling alley, and he had a friend there who didn’t do video games or any screen time really. While they were bowling, that kid was not doing well and he was losing his mind because he was pretty competitive. Maybe this is a personality thing because my son has never really been competitive, but I turned to my husband and I said, “I’m so glad we play video games with him because he’s worked out with us in a safe place what it feels like to lose when you try really hard at something.”
Brandy: Obviously there are so many ways that kids can do that with playing sports and other kind of board games, so it’s not that video games are the only way, but it was a moment where I realized, “Oh, here’s one of the benefits of video games, and especially playing with them, is we’re working this stuff out that other kids who are not allowed to do this stuff are not working out yet.”
Jordan: Yeah, and as you said, it’s not the video game that makes that possible; it’s the interaction with you, with the parents, with the caregivers, with the adults who can teach them how to sort of manifest principles and values and ethics in life. There’s so many things that we think of, again, as the essential parts of childhood. I deal with things like family dinner in the book. I’m all for family dinner; I’m not against it in any way, but the thing that’s good about family dinner is not the dinner. It has nothing to do with the food, it has nothing to do with mealtime. It has to do with the interaction between family members, and there’s no reason we can’t emulate that kind of interaction over a video game while playing MarioKart.
Jordan: There’s a ton of interaction that happens, and if you look at almost everything we talk about as being the sort of greatest essential things that we want to happen with kids, a lot of them are about the interaction. I mean even like reading a bedtime story, right? This is like the holy grail of parenting, right, read to your kids. That’s good because it teaches a love of books, it teaches a way to interact, but it’s also great because it involves an interaction. There’s no reason that you can’t actually get similar benefits out of video games, right? Now this is not me saying, “Hey, replace bedtime reading with video games,” but why not do both?
Jordan: If I’m teaching my kids positive attitudes about books every night by reading them a story, don’t I also want to teach my kids positive attitudes about using digital tools? Don’t I also want to teach them positive attitudes around digital communications? I mean I’m guessing your life is similar to mine in that my guess is more than half of my interactions now, whether those are professional, romantic, spiritual, social, cultural, are digital, more than half of them at this point. So how do I make meaning of that in a positive way? How do I integrate that into my life in a positive way? I’m learning how to do it, as most of us all are, but it’s now my job to help mentor my kids to figure that out, and one of the best ways to do that is going to be starting when they’re really young interacting with them. Teaching them how to set those boundaries of when is it time to turn it off when they’re not even old enough to fight with you. It’s so funny: the average kid gets a smartphone and access to social media now, at least last time I checked, which was about a year ago, the numbers said it was 12 or 13 years old. I read that and I went, “Well that’s crazy. Why would I want to give my kid access to social media for the first time right when they hit puberty and their hormones start raging, and they think everything I say is wrong? I should give it to them when they’re five and they just want to agree with Dad and do everything Dad says, and when Dad says, ‘Be kind,’ they try to be kind. Instead I do it at 12?” Trust me, I have a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. Most of what I say, they go, “There’s no way you’re right. You’re dumb.” At least I can tell that’s what they’re thinking.
Brandy: Right, so get them while they’re young and they still believe every word you say.
Jordan: Right, and that’s the time to say, “Hey, you’ve been on that for an hour. Why not take a break?” I shouldn’t even say “why not”; you should say, “You have to take a break.” Start to build those habits young. Habits are much easier to build when they’re young, but when you turn it into this forbidden thing where you’re like, “You only get 20 minutes of it a day,” then I think what you’re doing is teaching them they should want more.
Brandy: Yes. Oh my gosh, it’s funny you say that because we’ve always had with my son that he gets an hour a day, and sometimes on weekends it’s fudged a little bit, but then he gets to choose whatever he does with that. Sometime over this last summer, I could see that he was fevered about it. Like we’d come back from being out all day and he’d go, “Oh, but I haven’t used ten minutes of my screen time.” It was like the first thing on his brain all the time. I mean at first talked my husband about it; I’m like, “I kind of think we should give him unlimited screen time,” and so we sat down with him and I said to him, “This could go really wrong. You could be on this 24 hours a day and it could ruin our lives, and in which case, in a week, we’ll reassess, but this is you showing to us that you’re capable of handling this and we’re going to figure it out together, but I think when you know that you only have X amount of time, you get anxious that you’re not going to get to use it or you want to fit it in every day whereas if you knew you had it when you wanted it, maybe you would be more chill about it.”
Brandy: It actually turned out, I was like, “I’m sure this is going to be awful and he’s just going to be on it all the time.” And is he on it more than before? Yes, but is there a lack of tension around it now? Yes, and that part is so much more healthy, but this brings me into my question for you-
Jordan: Wait, before you ask it, can I say something to that? Which is that-
Brandy: Yeah, yeah.
Jordan: I want to say two things to that, which is one, with my own kids, the rule has always been, I never put any screen time limits on them but I have lots of requirements. Like, “You must play outside sometimes some time during the day unless it’s snowing or raining,” “You must read books,” “You must have other kinds of interactions.” I have lots of things they know are expected of them, and they know that if they haven’t done any of those things, I am going to say, “You’ve been on that all day. Time to stop playing that game and go do something that involves some exercise,” right, which is not the same as saying I have a hard fast rule, but they know it’s coming, and it teaches them why it is that I care. Actually, if they can fit in exercise, reading, talking to friends, and also 12 hours of screen time, I mean there’s not enough hours in the day, but if they somehow can make more hours, great. What do I care as long as they’re still doing the things that I value?
Jordan: That’s one, but the other thing I want to just say is that the story you told about your son coming home and it’s all that was on his mind, of course this is true. Parents, I’m sure, all have that experience. The weird thing is we start to assume that that’s because the screen is addictive. That’s this narrative that we’ve started. Besides that, just think back to your own childhood. Anything that was occupying your social group was the only thing that was on your mind when you were a kid, and it seemed stupid to your parents, right?
Brandy: Right, yes.
Jordan: I can remember so many times before there were even screens when we were working on something, some kind of project as a group of friends, and I was just like, “When I can get home so I can finish that so I can call them? I don’t give a crap about this stuff you’re dragging me too, Mom. I have my own things I care about.” That’s normal. I’m not saying that means parents shouldn’t intervene and shift kids’ priorities; of course parents should do that, but don’t scapegoat the screen thinking that it’s the reason that your kid has single-minded focus on something you don’t care about. That’s normal for kids.
Brandy: Exactly. I liked that part in the book where you talked about it, where we think that our kids are obsessed about it, but we never talk about it in terms of like “my kid is obsessed with Play-Doh. Every time he plays Play-Doh, he won’t stop, and then he throws a tantrum when I tell him it’s over.” We give so much grace to so many different things, but it’s like when a screen is inserted, all of a sudden, it’s the devil.
Jordan: Yeah, totally. My younger son, now he’s 12, but probably when he was like 8 or 9 or 10, he was such a Lego fanatic, and he would save up any gift he got. He’s a great saver; he will save anything he could get. He’d be like, “Dad, can I clean the car for $5?” until he had a fortune and then he would use it to buy the sets of Lego that I would never buy, the $150 crazy ones where I was like, “It’s too expensive,” but he would be like, “I’m saving to do it myself,” and then I got to kind of enjoy helping him find ways to earn the money to do it. But he would get these and they were great actually because they would take him a week or two, maybe three to finish assembling, but we’d be getting ready for school and that would be the moment he decided was a great time to do the next four steps on the Legos. That would cause a screaming, crying tantrum when I said, “Now is not an appropriate time.” Nobody thinks of that as, “Oh, Lego is addictive.”
Jordan: Again, single-minded focus is not only normal for kids, but pretty normal for adults too, and it’s problematic when it happens to adults too. We all sometimes obsess over things that are not necessarily the best use of our brain power. We’re supposed to be teaching our kids how to shift those priorities, how to know when it’s time to move from one priority to another. We’re not supposed to complain about the fact that they’re not good at it yet.
Brandy: Exactly. I think as adults, we’re better at this because we control our own lives, so we know what our day looks like and we just know inherently, “Well I have to leave here to go to this place at 7:00 or pick somebody up at 3:00,” whereas our kids don’t have that because they’re not in control. We can all of a sudden say, “Hey, we gotta go run to the grocery store,” and then they’ve been playing on their iPad and they melt down, and we’re like, “Man, that thing sure is addictive,” and we aren’t thinking like, “But they didn’t know that they were going to be pulled from it. It could’ve been Play-Doh and it would’ve been the same thing.”
Jordan: Yeah. It’s annoying, but it’s also part of the learning experience, right? Like, “It is time to go to the store.” Guess what? If I’m working on a chapter of my book and suddenly my alarm rings to tell me it’s time to go pick up my kids from school. That’s terribly annoying too. I have learned to not cry. Whenever I travel with my kids, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do some of the tour and stuff with me, so we’ll be in line for an airplane and they’ll go, “This is so terrible. I can’t believe it’s delayed. I hate this.” I’m like, “Yeah, so does everyone else, but the difference is adults have learned that they’re not allowed to cry and whine about it. That’s the only difference, but we all feel like crying and whining.”
Brandy: Exactly, but we’ve been crushed so many times that this is not abnormal for us. This is just a Tuesday for us.
Jordan: That’s right, so we have to give our kids a chance to be crushed and cry and whine, and tell them to stop crying and whining, but the idea that they should not be crying and whining? That’s absurd.
Brandy: This is amazing because now I’m looking at parenting in a whole new way, which is every time my kids melt down, it’s part of the “crushing” that must happen for them to become adults that are worn down and jaded. The next time my daughter throws herself on the ground, it’s like, “Oh, it’s just part of the crushing, Honey. It’s fine.”
Jordan: Right. You should be like, “I’d feel that way too if I were you, but your response to it is not going to get you anything or make anything better, so why don’t you learn a better response?”
Brandy: Yeah, seriously.
Jordan: We joke about it, but I think one of the things I thought about a whole lot while writing this book, which has nothing to do with technology, was just how often we tend to think that we’re doing a bad job at parenting because our kids are acting like kids. I’m trying to make good adults. My kids are sometimes terribly behaved, in public even, and yes, it’s embarrassing, but the truth is my goal is to make sure they’ve learned how to interact with people by the time they’re grownups. If they were already good at it as kids, they wouldn’t need me.
Brandy: That’s such a good point. That’s such a great outlook.
Brandy: So the question I was going to ask you before that was probably the top on my list is, what are your rules around screen time, and what are your boundaries like? How do you help them have good habits? I saw some of it in the book, but I want you to detail for us the list of rules in your household.
Jordan: Okay. First of all, there’s not that many. As I said, they’re rules about what else they’re going to have to do. My kids know at bedtime I’m going to tell them, “All screens off. You have to read a book.” You have to read before beds. That’s sort of a rule in my house, like brushing your teeth. I would encourage all parents to make that a rule. I’ve often said that and parents go, “But my kids don’t like reading.” I’m like, “Well my kids don’t like brushing their teeth. I still make them do it.” Whether they like it or not, the way you build those sort of lifelong habits is to make them do it, but it’s important that parents do that alongside.
Jordan: So my kids know I’m also doing that right before bed. When they were littler, I would get in bed with them and I would read right next to them. Now we all go to our own beds and read, but for a long time, I read my own book while they read their book right next to them, probably until they were like ten, and also it’s great for adults because it’s often hard for us to find time to have a reading hour, for example. So, it’s great when you can trick yourself into being like, “Well great. I get to read by showing my kids that they have to read.”
Brandy: Oh, yes. That’s genius.
Jordan: Especially in the summers, I used to do that all the time. I’d go, “It’s reading hour. Let’s all go outside and sit in the grass and read,” and we would do that. I don’t have any hard rules around timing when it comes to screens. I will often, if you had my kids on here, they’d say, “Oh my God, you’re always telling us we’ve been on the screen too long and we have to go do something else. That happens every day, I feel like,” and that’s true probably because I’m trying to teach them how to evaluate what’s happening today and whether or not their behavior fits with what should be happening today. It’s sort of changed now that they’re older and almost teenagers and they have to do homework, but it used to be no screens after dinner at all. I’ll add a caveat here, which is they’d be allowed to play after school or when I picked them up from daycare when they were little, and then we’d eat dinner, and then we would often watch a movie all of us together, so it wasn’t completely no screens but there were certainly no independent screens, no individual screens, and then-
Brandy: Right. So it was screen time together.
Jordan: Yeah, and it was almost always a TV show or a movie. Maybe we were watching the Merlin show that was on once. We binge-watched that together, probably when they were like six or seven because I wanted to introduce them to some of the mythology that it’s based on, and we would talk about it, and that was great. Then it was bedtime or reading time. As they’re older-
Brandy: Real quick: for reading, are you cool with the E-readers, like a Kindle or something, or does that count as screen for you?
Jordan: No, no. Of course I’m cool with that. We have many, many E-readers in my house. My kids, if you were to ask them like, “What do you like better: E-reader or book?”, they’d look at you like that’s the most absurd question that they’d ever heard. Like, “What’s the difference? You read on whatever’s in front of you and has the book you want to read on it.”
Brandy: Right. Oh gosh, even that question, we just have such a vilification of, “But that’s still a screen, Jordan. It’s a book, but it’s the evil version of the book.”
Jordan: Years ago when I was writing for Forbes and I was covering global education, and I would go all around the world talking to educators and sometimes education ministers, things like that, I mean I still do some of that. I can’t remember where I was, but I was talking to some education minister and I was telling them how people are really against E-books in the US, and the guy looked at me and said, “Really? Because where I’m from, we’re just amazed that we suddenly have access to all the books that we never had access before.” That’s a first world problem, to go, “Is the book on E-ink or on paper?” It’s a book. Are you kidding? There was a time when only the richest, most elite people had access to books, and now we’re worried about what the access looks like?
Brandy: Oh my God, we’re embarrassing. We are so embarrassing in so many ways. Okay, get us back to your list.
Jordan: Okay, let’s see. So that’s my major list. For the longest time I had a rule, “no devices in the car unless it was more than an hour drive,” so there was none of this, “I need to watch a video or play a video game” while I drive to the grocery store. I’ve always been like, “You know what? I’m bored driving to the grocery store. I’ve been bored my whole life, driving to the grocery store. You can be bored for 20 minutes too, and that’s a useful skill.” I’m so glad I did that because I’ve seen parents who are like, “Can you please get out of the car?” and it takes another five minutes to get the kids out of the car, but I just never allowed it. If it was a long drive, like we were driving to another state, that made sense to me, but a short drive? No. “Look out the window and be bored.”
Brandy: Yeah, I’m with you. I wanted one place that I knew I wasn’t managing screen time, and that was the car.
Jordan: Yeah, exactly. When we travel, they’re not allowed to take their laptops. They have smartphones now, so I’ll let them take their smartphone. Again, I keep saying “when they were younger” because now that my kids are almost teenagers, I trust them to manage a lot of things themselves. I used to say “no screen time on play dates,” and it was not so much that I was against the screen time, but my kids grew up in a time already where they were playing with those same friends online all day, so it’s like, “Well right now, they’re in the room with you. Why’d you even have a play date? You could’ve just stayed on the online conversation.” They’re playing Fortnite talking to each other, so when they’re together, maybe they shouldn’t do that.
Jordan: I’ve changed my mind a bit on that; I mean I still push it sometimes, but if there’s something I’ve noticed from watching kids, I have a pretty large family with a lot of cousins, and we used to say things like, “No screens because I want you talking to your cousins,” and then I discovered that they all just sit alone and draw or something. Then as soon as we say yes to screens, they all start leaning over and looking at what each other’s doing, and they go, “Hey, what are you playing? Let me show you how.” They’d start talking about it. That’s their shared frame of reference. So actually, I learned it inspired more interaction, not less.
Jordan: I don’t know. I mean that is basically the rules. I’m not much of a rule person; I’m more of a rule breaker. I always have been.
Brandy: It sounds like even more than rules, you’ve taught them moderation, which I just went to a talk at my son’s school district that was about the evil screens and what it’s doing to our youth, which I was laughing the whole time because I was knowing I had this interview with you coming up, and I was like, “Oh, what would Jordan say about this?” because it was basically a doctor who works with kids who have screen “addictions” and he sees all sorts of awful, sad, terrible behavior because of it, and there were therapists there. Their version of this is, the doctor said, “I basically would have no kids have any screens if it were up to me.” I’m chuckling to myself in the background like, “Have you read this book?” but it was interesting to me because my friend and I walked out of there, and we looked at each other and we went, “So basically just parent your kids.” That’s basically what the message we walked away with was, and there was this part at the end where you could write an anonymous question and the therapist would answer. They’re reading this question, and the question was, “My 13-year-old won’t give me the passwords to their smartphone. What should I do?”
Brandy: My friend and I are almost like losing our shit in the back just like, “Parent that. You parent that is what you do. You do not let them have the phone.” My point on this was that your rules sound less like rules but more like, “Hey, this is how you be a healthy person with screen time, and here are the things that get you to doing that.” It looked like from your book too and what you’re saying is there was no screen time before school, not in the car unless it’s a long drive. The time after dinner is for connection time, which doesn’t mean no screens, but it just means everybody can’t scatter and go on their screens separately, and then before bed, that kids are reading instead of being on their screen. Rule-wise, that seems like a framework that they can move in-between.
Jordan: Yeah, and you did it better than me. I forgot about the “no before school” because that’s changed, but yeah. That was a rule, but I think I say it in the book that was much more for my own convenience. It used to be so hard to say, “Shoes on, get in the car, grab your lunch, grab your backpack.” Adding anything to distract them was a problem other than, “Eat your breakfast. Now move.”
Brandy: Exactly. So you’ve changed that rule? So you now allow it before school?
Jordan: Well again, they’re 12 and 14. They know how to get dressed and be ready, and usually, they’re sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal before I get to the table, and if they’re watching YouTube while they’re doing that, I’m fine because they’ve learned how to be ready to walk out the door on time.
Brandy: Got it, yeah.
Jordan: So I don’t need that rule anymore. Again, that’s all I’m after, as you said, is we want to raise kids who are able to manage their own time. I don’t actually care if you’re watching YouTube if you can still do what you need to do and operate in the world. I want you to operate well in the world. If that involves video games, awesome.
Jordan: You talk about the doctor you saw. I mean it’s just so crazy to me and dangerous to me, honestly. Look, I have met kids who have really seriously unhealthy relationships with screens, what some people might call “addicted.” I just avoid the word all together, but some people might call it that. I have heard the horror stories about the kids who have these terrible relationships, but let’s be honest. We should not scapegoat the screen for those problems. That should be an indication of a much deeper problem. If a kid has an eating disorder, we don’t scapegoat the food; we recognize that there’s a deep underlying problem with how they’re making sense of their lives. Maybe it’s abuse, maybe it’s a trauma. I have no idea. It’s not my area of expertise to think about what causes it, but it’s absolutely not the screen that causes it. I am terrified that we are so often scapegoating it that we’re failing to address the underlying causes. By all means, if your kid has an unhealthy relationship with a screen, intervene. Stop them, take it away if you need to, but you’re taking it away in order to address the underlying problem, not because it’s the underlying problem.
Brandy: Yes. That’s what was interesting to me, is the way that they opened this presentation was the stats on suicide and depression. They’ve skyrocketed-
Jordan: I can’t believe I just laughed when you said “suicide.” I’m not laughing at suicide and depression-
Brandy: I know it’s a hilarious topic, right?
Jordan: I’m just kind of laughing because I know those statistics and there’s nothing that connects them to screens, one. So there was a group of researchers at Oxford that took the data that that’s based on that study and combed through it themselves, and found the exact same correlation between eating potatoes and depression, and a much higher correlation between wearing glasses and depression than using screens and depression. Watch out for potatoes and glasses too.
Brandy: Gosh, this is one of my gripes about modern days. We have so much information, like I said, on every single topic that you get so many mixed messages that then you’re paralyzed with what to do, but I thought it was interesting because they were like, “We saw an uptick of when Facebook started. See, look at the link,” and I’m thinking, “There’s so much more going on here. This is nuanced.” This is nuanced, but I get they see kids that come in who have issues who probably also have an issue with screen, perhaps, but that maybe aren’t necessarily totally related, and then they confound the two, right?
Brandy: So I just kind of felt like, “This is an extreme version,” again, I was looking for NOT the extreme version. The other thing I felt like is the parents that needed to be at a talk like this are not at a talk like this. You’ve got a room of parents who are maybe over-interested in their kid’s health and life, and then you’re telling them how scary this is. We aren’t the people that need this, so I kind of walked away from that with a lot more questions and frustration than anything else, but that’s why I think having your book too tempered that for me, so that was really helpful. So thank you for that.
Jordan: Yeah, I’m glad to hear that because again, that’s why I wrote it, but I would love to just address, because a lot of people talk about this, the uptick in depression and anxiety among kids. It comes up a lot, there’s a lot of people drawing conclusions from it, and because I’m really deeply worried about kids in general, I want to make sure at least I say it to everyone who’s listening, which is one, I think we need to step back in how we hear those statistics. If I wanted to doubt them with some skepticism, I would go, “The way we’ve defined depression and anxiety has changed so many times in the last five decades that the idea that you can look at the longitudinal data and draw a conclusion like this is absolutely true when the first cohort was answering a different question than the last one is problematic,” but let’s put that aside for a second.
Jordan: We have made it okay to articulate your sense of anxiety and depression in a way that it never was, not even when I was a kid. If I had said to my parents, “I’m depressed,” they would’ve been like, “What are you depressed for? You have nothing to be depressed about,” and that’d be the end of the conversation, where now, if my kids come to me, I’m going to be like, “Really? Tell me more about that. Let me try to evaluate whether I should take you to a therapist.” Of course the numbers are going to increase. That increase also comes because of things like social media that have made us all so much aware of the fact that there’s kids who are suffering, so yes, there’s going to be an uptick with that. Is there an uptick in misogyny because of social media? No. The misogyny was there; we’re just all aware of it now. It’s not like things were less sexist before and it made it worse. No. Now it’s out in the open and we have to talk about it, and that’s a positive thing, right?
Brandy: Ugh, such a good point. Yes.
Jordan: What we should be going is, “Wow, social media has shown us how much depression there is.” It’s unveiled so much of it, and maybe we need to deal with what’s going on with the kids. Yeah, they have depression because we have crazy expectations because we have social rules in their school that are terrible in some cases that cause things like bullying. Do you think the question of status started with Instagram? If anything, it’s gotten nicer with Instagram. Like yeah, we all sit there and go, “Oh my God, everyone’s worried about whether they’re cool enough.” I was worried about that and we didn’t have smartphones, and I didn’t have anyone to go to, and I didn’t have a group for myself to go to when I was worried about that. Now they’re able to find friend groups. Now that’s not to say some kids aren’t really being hurt by this obsession with status and beauty and how you look, but let’s not pretend that that’s new to the internet.
Brandy: That’s such a good point on that. I feel like there’s an uptick of everything. Every problem that we have because social media allows us to lay it out there and talk about it, it’s like, “Wow, shit seems really bad” because we’re finally talking about it, but then to blame the things that aren’t at the root of it, to blame almost the messenger or the messenger’s system of it seems problematic, right?
Jordan: Imagine if someone suggested that all of the scandal that led to Black Lives Matter was because there were smartphones.
Brandy: Oh my God, right.
Jordan: Right? That’s kind of what we’re doing. Like no, we all know about it and there’s a Black Lives Matter movement because there were smartphones, but I personally believe that before there were smartphones, there were probably more injustices happening around race and gender.
Brandy: Totally, yeah.
Jordan: Now we’re seeing them in a way we haven’t, and we’ve given people permission to report them. I think the point I’m making is we’ve given kids permission to talk about depression and anxiety in a way they never could’ve before, so we should see an uptick. We need a lot more data before we understand whether the uptick is the result of more unhappiness or just the result of a different way of understand when unhappiness is appropriate and when it’s not. I don’t think we have adequate data to make the assumption one way or the other yet. I’m not necessarily saying that my interpretation is true; I’m just saying this seems also probable. Until you can show me something that absolutely says it’s not that, I’m not going to be really convinced that the ability to have online communication’s caused it.
Brandy: I hear you on that. Well, what is your take on first person shooter games?
Jordan: Yeah, so I avoided them with my kids for a long time. At first, it was no first person shooter games. While I certainly do understand that there’s an excitement to the sort of target practice aspect of it, it never quite made sense to me why that was fun to kill, right? So I avoided it when they were little. As they got older, they could play games that had shooting as long as it wasn’t humans that they were shooting with this idea that, I didn’t like the idea of human against human, but if they’re shooting aliens, if it’s a fantasy world, it’s okay. That comes from my background in psychology where we understand the way mythology works. The Bible, The Iliad, The Odyssey, these are terribly violent texts but we recognize that the exposure to a violent narrative is not necessarily the same as living a violent life.
Jordan: Exposure to a violent narrative can be about working out inner conflict, for example, so I wasn’t really against the idea of them shooting mythological creatures like aliens. I actually let them play Halo, I don’t know what age, but that was probably the first time I let them lean towards any first person shooter, and then I don’t think they touched any with people, I mean by the time I would’ve not made a rule about it, I think they weren’t interested anymore because there had been so many years of me going, “Why would you want to play that?” I mean they certainly play Fortnite, which is more like a third person shooter, but it has a first person mode, but it’s cartoony.
Brandy: And there’s dancing!
Jordan: Right. I think they’ve learned my values around this, and there were lots of times when we had conversations when I would see them playing something that I thought was violent, or play with a Minecraft skin, for example, that had some violence in it. We would have discussions like, “Why is it fun to shoot? I don’t get why that’s a game. I don’t get why it’s play, to try to kill things.” I would force them to have to try to explain that to me. What mattered more to me was that they were capable of reflecting on what they’re doing. When I was a kid, I ran around in the backyard with my friends pretending to kill each other. We played war, yeah, of course. That’s part of what you do. Tag is often framed as an almost war-like game when you’re playing freeze tag or something with prison and torture sometimes with base, right?
Brandy: Yes, totally.
Jordan: But that’s okay as long as you’re able to make that distinction between what’s play and what’s not. That’s what I think most people are afraid of, so I’ve spent a lot of time with my kids saying, “How do we make sense of the fact that people want to play Call of Duty? Why do you think it is?” I would encourage parents, rather than panic about these games, have lots of discussions. I still, even with teenagers, sit down with them all the time. Whenever they’re playing something I haven’t seen, I sit down and I go, “What are you playing? How does it work? Who are those guys? Wait, what is the storyline here? I don’t understand.” I’m just trying to get them to reflect on it. I’m just trying to get them to have sort of the metacognitive distance to go, “What is this violence?”
Jordan: The problem is violence without thought, not violence itself. Violence itself is life. Not all of life, but it’s part of life, but the problem is if we don’t have a critical distance to think about what it means. That’s what I want for my kids. I feel comfortable now that they do that, so I actually have no rules about what games they can or can’t play anymore because after as many years as they’ve not only had the conversation with me but watched me talk about it on stage and listened to an audio book and listened to podcasts. I know they’re hearing my voice in their head while they’re watching, so I’m okay with it. Actually, I want to say one thing to that, which is I just said “have my voice in their head.” That’s our job. Our job is to put our voices in our kids’ head. I’m 42 years old. I walk down the street and I often go, “Well how would my dad respond to this? How would my mom respond to that?” I still do it, and it’s not like I care how they would respond because I’m going to make my own choices, but they help formed my conscience. So I’m making sure that when they’re playing a first person shooter, I want them to hear Dad’s voice going, “Why is violence fun?”
Brandy: No, it’s such a good point. Communication around something is almost more important than the thing itself. That’s always where I end up on things.
Jordan: I agree with you, and nagging is a good thing. We hate it as parents because it feels terrible to do, but every time you nag your kid, you’re building that nagging voice for a lifetime. If they’re the right things, that’s good.
Brandy: Oh, that’s the part right there, though. The “right things.” We don’t know what those are until they’re in therapy. It’s tricky.
Jordan: Well no, but we do. I guess what I would say to parents is we do know more than we feel like it. We’re not sure we understand how computers work. Most of us don’t understand how computers work. We don’t understand how the game systems work, but you know what? We know what our values are, we know what our principles are, and the real question is not, “Is it the right time?” There’s no right amount of time. There’s no right amount of exposure. There’s no wrong amount of time or wrong amount of exposure. There’s only the question of whether or not your kids are living a life that’s aligned with your values.
Brandy: Yeah, good point.
Jordan: You have to constantly shove them in that direction. I might say that to some people like, “Well my values are ‘play in the trees, don’t play with screens.'” Then I would go, “Then why do you as an adult have a smartphone?” I mean, you know how to live with it in a way that you’re comfortable with, I would hope, and I actually think most adults do, even though on social media we like to say, “I need a digital detox.” I think most of us are totally fine with the amount of screen time we have as adults.
Brandy: Yeah, such a good point that we do it ourselves and then we don’t allow our kids to do it. It’s like, “Well wait a minute. There’s a gap there.” There’s a missing piece, which is teaching our kids how they can do this thing that we do. It’s so funny when they see us doing it but then they’re not allowed to do it. It’s like, what is that disconnect there, but I think you exactly speak to it.
Jordan: Yeah, and I would say we often do it badly, but that doesn’t mean it goes against our values either. I’m sure everybody who’s listening to this has had the experience I’ve had of staying up too late binge-watching something on Netflix where I feel crappy about myself, right? Then I move on with my life. Then if we see our kids playing something for too many hours, we act like they’ve done something terrible? Well no, we do that as adults sometimes too. What we’re supposed to teach them is how to make meaning of that. By the way, I should add that even those kids who have unhealthy relationships with video games or screens, what we find when we talk to them is most of them are not happy about that. They feel intense guilt and shame that they spent too many hours too. I get this from my son all the time if he stays up too late on a weekend playing. I go, “How late were you up?” and he goes, “I just couldn’t stop. I feel so stupid.
Brandy: Right. So one of my last questions for you, there was a part in the book that I thought was really interesting, which was this idea of screens and smartphones for our kids as transitional objects, especially in specific cases, and you were talking about in divorced families. Will you tell us a little bit about how that works and what you were talking about there?
Jordan: Yeah. First, let’s deal with transitional objects because in the book, I connect it to the security blanket, which is the famous transitional object. The term has to do with this idea that it’s always hard for a person as they develop consciousness to deal with the disconnect between what’s happening inside them and what’s happening outside them. This is why kids are often surprised when they get into trouble or if they call someone names and then someone gets upset because they thought they were playing, they didn’t mean it with any anger, but then somebody cried. This becomes a huge confusion for them, and so they need to be able to manage that disconnect between inner reality and outer reality, and one of the ways that that has happened that we accept is with something like a security blanket or a teddy bear, or something like that.
Jordan: So how does that work? There’s a teddy bear, which the kid as a baby, a child, maybe a toddler, knows it’s not real. They don’t actually think it’s a real bear, but they talk to it as if it’s a real bear. When the parent talks to that bear with the same voice and goes, “Hey, let’s talk to Mr. Bear Bear,” what it tells the kid is it’s okay that they’re working out this reality disconnect. It tells them that their inner reality has value, even though it’s not true in the external world, and that you can help them transition between those two things. Now, I got in a little bit of trouble putting this in the book because people thought I was saying, “Hey, you should give a phone to a little kid like it’s a teddy bear,” which was not my point.
Brandy: No, no. I didn’t think that that came across. Those people are idiots. Anyway …
Jordan: Okay, good. What I was saying more than that saying that what happens, I think, for older kids, once they become preteens and tweens, is that the phone becomes a way for them to actually make meaning of their experience – their pubescent experience dealing with their internal experience and the external world around them, and also dealing with the transition between home and social, between all the code-switching we were talking about earlier. The phone becomes this thing, and it becomes sort of a comfort object in some ways. You used divorce as an example. I would imagine that for my children, I’m divorced, just knowing that they can text Mom when they’re with me actually creates a level of comfort with the transition between the two houses that wasn’t always there. So that’s one thing, but also the sense, when my kid was even younger, I saw the way that the Nintendo DS, now it’s the Nintendo Switch but before that it was the DS, where that was the thing he couldn’t imagine not taking between the two houses. I realized at some point that that was because when he needed to escape into his own world, when he needed to not deal with the pressure of changing different expectations and different places, playing MarioKart was a safe space for him.
Jordan: In that sense, I think we have to understand in a world where that’s a toy, taking that away can also be taking away the one thing that feels clear and comfortable. I take a little bit further in the book where I say for my kids, going through divorce, divorce is terrible. It was terrible for me. In the long run, it worked out best for everyone involved, but it’s really emotionally hard and you don’t know what the rules are, and nothing’s consistent. What used to be a perfectly stable reality is suddenly thrown up in the air in such a ridiculous way, and then you have these video games, this is what I imagine my son was going through, these video games where the rules are crystal clear, like, “You get a flower, that gives you fire power. You get a mushroom, you grow up. You get bigger.” That’s just the reality of how it works and it works every time the same way with consistency, so I don’t even think it was just this sort of escape into another world to get away from the chaos. It was also a world that was clear and concise and made sense to them.
Jordan: This started to make sense to me when I would take my kids traveling and notice that they always wanted to look at their phones while traveling, and I would get freaked out because I’d be like, “Hey, I’m paying for an expensive trip to show you mountains, and you’re just staring at your phone. You can do that at home.” Then I realized, “Wait. It’s got to be kind of hard to be seven and be far away from every visual and solid landmark that you know.”
Brandy: Yeah, so true.
Jordan: Right? Then you have this one object that is familiar. It’s not fair to take that away. What I started doing, and I did push really hard at this this summer because they were lucky to go on a big trip with me, I was doing international promotion of the book and went to a few different countries with me, but I started encouraging them to do as much Instagram as possible. I thought, “Well wait. How do I get them to pay attention to their surroundings? Why don’t I tell them to use their phone to interact with their surroundings?” Suddenly, they were looking around every city we walked through going, “Where’s a great thing to take pictures that would be cool?” They got both things.
Brandy: That’s great. Well, and one of the parts that really kind of blew my mind regarding the transitional object is you have a quote, which I have here, “Just think what it must be like for kids to hear us refer to their transitional objects with the same language we use to describe cigarettes and drugs. He’s not addicted to his devices; he just doesn’t like it when I disrupt his coping mechanisms.” Those were two separate sentences that I sort of put together, but man, it makes you as a parent feel like an asshole a little bit when you’re like, “Oh my God, I totally talk to my kid like he’s got a meth problem and this thing that is actually a solid thing in their life that maybe,” and in some cases like you’re saying, “is this transitional object of what is grounded and what has rules in a world that doesn’t, and I’m making them feel shitty for liking it?” I just wanted to make sure we talked about that because I would imagine everybody listening right now is like, “Oh, shit.” So maybe we don’t do that anymore, you know?
Jordan: No, I mean I think that’s a great point. If you think about movies, when we want to show the terrible stepdad, we show that the terrible stepdad comes in and goes, “I don’t know why you care so much about Little League. That’s not going to get you anywhere,” and we think, “What a terrible person,” but that’s how Fortnite feels to them, like Little League. Every time we’re coming in and going, “Why do you like that stupid thing?” you’re saying, “Why is this thing that occupies all of your energy and all of your imagination …?” You just told them it’s stupid. We would never accept that in any other part of our kids’ lives. We recognize that immediately as not fair to do to a small person, but we’re doing it all day long when it comes to games and phones. Again, I’m not saying that means we should be like, “Phones are great and video games are great” all the time. It can be problematic, but let’s not tell them the thing they love most is dumb.
Brandy: Yeah, exactly, and you had that other part about playing with your kids, about involving yourself in screen time with them. By doing that, you’re telling them, “The things that matter to you matter to me, and I find that important. The things that you like to play with are important.” I think that that’s a real way that kids feel validated and seen and really just connect with us. Even though there are certain things that we don’t like to do, there’s so much “sit down and make figurines” talk that I just cannot handle. I know especially with my daughter, when I do sit down and find the thing, and for us it’s coloring – it happens to be a thing that both she and I love, but when we play MarioKart or whatever, it’s like to be in their world and for them to see an adult who values what is important to them, it’s almost like there’s no word for what that feeling feels like for everybody to just be enjoying a similar thing that is important in their kid world, so I think that that’s one of the main points of your book.
Brandy: To me, walking away from it was, “Wow, being involved with kids, with their screens, with their online life, with video games, if that’s what they’re playing,” but to really be in there to show them how to do these things, to show what the limits are and to have fun with them. To show them that what matters to them, it matters and isn’t frivolous.
Jordan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. For anyone who really just doesn’t want to play video games, which I hear from parents all the time, again, even just sitting with them having the conversation I described where you say, “Why is this fun to you?” shows that you value it. You might tell them you don’t like it, but the fact that you’re having a serious conversation about it does show that you value it. I often tell my kids to explain to me what they’re doing, and I might criticize what’s happening on the screen, but the fact that I’m even willing to have any kind of conversation with them about what’s going on on the screens shows them that I don’t invalidate the fact that they care about what’s on the screen. It is fine for you to disagree with your kids. I will often tell them the video they like does not reflect what I think is funny. If it was up to my kids, again, they’re 12 and 14. They think penis jokes are still the funniest thing in the world, okay?
Brandy: Oh yeah.
Jordan: I often say to them, “That’s not funny to me. I’m 40. I’m way over that time,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to them tell the joke. I’m also being honest, which actually tells them I value it even more because they can tell when I’m bullshitting them. They would much rather have a serious, honest engagement with this father who’s demonstrating how he thinks critically about their world than a father that either, one, lies to them and says it’s all perfect, or two, just dismisses it altogether without even asking.
Brandy: So in closing, what is your favorite game to play with your kids?
Jordan: You know, I don’t play that much with my kids’ video games anymore because I’m not good enough. They’ve gotten so much better than me, like they tease me when I try to play.
Brandy: Ugh, right?
Jordan: But we really liked Overcooked. I mean Overcooked we all played together and it was so much fun. It’s sort of the last time I remember us spending hours together, and it was probably a year ago. Now, I mean everything they play, I try it, but now it’s like a joke that Dad can’t figure out how to work anything. We still play MarioKart actually quite a bit on the Switch. It’s great. We’ll play it on an airplane or on a bus or train or something like that. It’s great for that.
Brandy: I’m surprised that Overcooked isn’t too stressful because I find that game to be real life on steroids, just like, “Ah, I’ve got to make dinner and everything’s burning!” It’s too much for me.
Jordan: Yeah, well it is stressful. We definitely got to certain levels when we were like, “Okay, we’re done with this. We don’t need to beat the whole game.”
Brandy: Right. “For everybody’s sanity, let’s just put this down.”
Brandy: For the listeners out there, I want people to know that MarioKart, one of the great things about it on Switch is that it has an automatic “go” that you can turn on, and it has “automatic stay on the track.” So for my daughter who’s six, but she started playing when she was five, it made it so that she could play with us and we all wouldn’t just be waiting for two hours for her to finish. So, those are two little features that thank you, Nintendo Switch, for doing that, because now she can play with us. It’s kind of like we’re all on the same page and just super us for all of us to be able to play it anyway, so …
Jordan: I also suggest to a lot of parents, I think it’s new Super Mario Bros. I don’t know what they call it now. Whatever edition they’re up to-
Brandy: Oh, yes.
Jordan: You know, because so many people grew up playing the original Super Mario Bros, and it’s almost like the levels are almost the same but each one has a few extras there, and it has the same kind of co-op mode you were talking about where when the youngest one dies, they just come back to life and keep playing. We played through the whole thing, my kids and I, when they were really little, and it was-
Brandy: Yes, us too.
Jordan: So much fun because I was playing it again with everything I remembered, and they were playing it for the first time. I guarantee anyone who played Super Mario Bros as a child, you will find nothing as fun as playing again with your kids.
Brandy: For the people who are like, “But what are we learning?” The amount, especially when you play in that co-op mode, we kind of go nuts because it’s like, “Dad, why are you over on that ledge? We’re over here.” It’s like you have this tension and you have to work through this problem-solving, but those kinds of things are the things that we’re talking about that video games can be really great for.
Brandy: Well Jordan, do you feel like there’s anything we didn’t cover? Anything you wanted to say?
Jordan: I really hope that this is helpful to parents and that they get a chance to read the book because I think if anything, what they’re going to find is, a lot of people imagine that I’m this super pro-screen guy. I’m actually probably more concerned about screens than many people, but what I’m concerned about is we’re not teaching people how to live with them.
Brandy: For the listeners out there, the book, I think, gives you a really much-needed, welcomed relief on having to be paralyzed and scared about screen time, and that, to me, felt so good. Obviously we’ve talked about the ways we should worry about it, but just also, this real need that we need to be in there teaching our kids how to live in this digital world and when we are vilifying it and disconnecting from it, we’re not doing that. So, I really think this kind of book is super necessary in this day and age with so many mixed messages. Thank you for the book. Thank you so much for your time today and for talking to me about this. I mean I could talk to you about this forever, so thank you, Jordan. I so appreciate it.
Jordan: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. This has been a blast.
Brandy: I knew Jordan was going to be good people when he mentioned his reluctance to continue the tradition of male experts. After we stopped recording, I made some dumb joke about Steve Jobs and the story that even he didn’t let his kids play with screens, and Jordan was like, “Since when are we taking parenting advice from a guy like this who thinks kids mining diamonds is okay, who berated his staff? This isn’t the guy I’m going to listen to for my parenting advice.” I just wanted to make sure that little gem didn’t get left out, because Jordan’s right, I think.
Brandy: Our conversation today was obviously just part of the bigger discussion about technology, screen time, and kids. There are lots of different layers to it, and even though we learned why we shouldn’t treat our kids like tiny meth addicts when they love playing on the iPad, I know many of you feel like there’s just something different about your kid’s behavior after they’ve been on a screen. What issssss that? I know there are still unanswered questions, but Jordan has such a valid point about how our parenting and guidance needs to also cover screen and technology use, and how our own avoidance and fear of technology is only hurting our kids. Our kids need us here, and if that means playing Mario Kart with them, I’m okay with that.
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Brandy: As always, thanks for listening.