The Parenting Algorithm

When it comes to screen time and technology management, the modern parent has a sizable mountain to climb. Affordability, portability, simplicity, personalization and the unlimited entertainment options that make technology so enticing and ubiquitous are the very things that make it so difficult for parents to help our children manage them. Many of us find comfort in the old standby parenting model of creating “rules.” Unfortunately, that pathway rarely leads to the summit. Maybe there is a better way.

Smart technology requires smart parenting. We can all adapt. One way to do that is by borrowing from what’s around us. As it turns out, there’s a fantastic little gem that lies within the same technology we are trying to manage. It’s called the adaptive algorithm, and although it’s not actually a new concept for parenting, I think it’s the perfect tool for the modern parent.

First, let’s talk about rules. 15-20 years ago (which really isn’t all that long ago), the rules we knew were iron clad, simple to follow, and most importantly for parents, easy to enforce. They were by no means perfect, but they were a way of automating the menial directives of parenting; Wash hands before dinner. Say please and thank you. No swimming for 30 minutes after eating. Don’t make that face too much or it will stay that way. Even rules for video games and television were much simpler because options were limited and they could only be enjoyed while sitting in front of a television (except for a few hand-held game systems with short battery life and relatively few game choices).

If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you already know I have a penchant for harkening back to “The Good Ol’ Days.” Some might consider that a pointless endeavor, but when it comes to learning something new, I often look to the past to see if there’s anything usable. In any case, for me at least, consideration of the past usually helps to lend clarity to the present. Indeed, those simple rules of yore held up not just because of their simplicity, but because they addressed specific behaviors which recurred during a limited number of predictable moments. By sharp contrast, today’s technology is, by design, portable, rechargable and always available. Consequently, any child could use a smart phone virtually non-stop for an entire day, wake up and repeat again and again. Obviously, adult intervention is needed, but this situation is well beyond the old school rules.

Flexibility of technology is a big part of the issue, so the measures we take to manage it should be equally as flexible. Where rules are concerned, a common idea is to come up with a time limit. Total hours in one day or in one sitting. Different schedules on weeknights and weekends etc. It might seem like the simplest method is to “set it and forget it” especially with apps that will lock screens or disconnect wi-fi, automatically. However, such hard-line rules defy the notion of flexibility and do not offer parents a good exit plan when it comes to enforcement. Even if the rule works at first, it won’t be long before an exception must be made. Once that happens, the rule has lost most of its value and only becomes that much more difficult to apply.

Some parents differentiate screen time rules by content or medium. Playing Xbox is different from using an iPad, which is different from watching TV, which is different from a hand-held game system, which is different from an iPhone. An educational, teaching app is different from an adventure game and a nature show or G rated Disney movie is different from a Marvel movie or violent cartoon. These are all important, valid considerations and each one is eternally debatable. However, even after we have eliminated the most egregious choices, factoring the rest in to screen time and technology management still overcomplicates an already complex situation.

From Wikipedia “An adaptive algorithm is an algorithm that changes its behavior at the time it is run,[1] based on information available and on a priori defined reward mechanism (or criterion).” It’s a computer’s way of asking itself “What’s going on right now that influences the decision I’m about to make?”

I feel I should pause here to address the somewhat “icky” feeling some of you (and I myself, actually) are experiencing as we relate parenting to computer coding. Afterall, we are not computers. We parent through emotion and feeling. Sometimes logic comes later. Our decisions are often aimed at things like happiness, love, joy and fulfillment. They haven’t come up with a code that can produce that, yet…have they? Anyway, that’s why the parenting algorithm should be considered a tool and not an entire parenting philosophy. Some tools are nuanced and delicate. Other tools are cast iron and basic. Each serves its purpose in the right situation.

Here’s how I would apply the parenting algorithm to screen time and technology management.

Instead of setting a specific time limit, when my children turn to screen use, I ask myself these two questions:
1. “what could they be doing instead?”
2. “what will they be missing by engaging in screen time?”

These questions are subtly different in one important way. The first considers the benefits of the activities available. The second considers the developmental opportunities missed. Of course, there is always something else our children could be doing, and even the best technology often comes at the expense of patience and delayed gratification. Opportunity cost is unavoidable. In some scenarios the answers will be obvious and the decision an easy one. Others will be much more gray and possibly require a disappointing choice between the lesser of two bad options. The adaptability comes in where you decide the relative value of all the options worth considering. From there, all that remains is to make your choice and be ready to adapt to whatever comes from it. Eventually, you just might find that you’re looking down from atop of the technology mountain, with your child by your side.