THE BLOG
01/12/2017 01:08 pm ET

The Obamas' Low-Tech Parenting

Although First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama certainly could provide their daughters, Malia and Sasha, the latest in digital devices, the Obama parents have chosen to raise their kids in a low-tech home environment. A recent New York Times article looking at Mrs. Obama's parenting style reveals that her girls don't use the computer for entertainment or watch TV on school nights. And on ABC's The View, President Obama declared that his daughters have grown up with strong limits on their phones.

Why do Mr. and Mrs. Obama set such tech rules, especially amid a culture that is ever quicker to hand kids gadgets? The First Lady says that the TV and computer (unless school-related) are "a privilege that we don't value deeply." Also, the Obama parents' high education level (e.g., both attended Harvard Law) likely plays a role, as the children of college graduates tend to spend less entertainment time on screens than kids whose parents aren't college grads.

A School that Promotes Home Tech Limits

In considering why the Obamas set firm tech rules, it's also important to realize that their daughters' school advises parents to do just that. Sasha attends Sidwell Friends (Malia recently graduated), which educates the children of many prominent Washington, D.C. parents and is rated academically as one of the best 50 private schools in the nation. Jennifer Voorhees, a top administrator and technology coordinator at the school, encourages kids to learn to use technology productively. However, she urges parents to restrict children's tech time at home because the overuse of gadgets can interfere with family connections and the development of empathy and self-motivation.

"My recommendation for summer technology engagement is: have as little as possible," Ms. Voorhees says in a message to parents. "Think of all they will learn with their eyes and ears open and available to the family, to new experiences, and to the outside world. Those moments of engagement can't be replaced (or enhanced) through technology." She also counsels: "Don't allow technology in the bedroom--no phones, no TVs, no video devices, no iPads."

A World Away

In contrast to Malia and Sasha's low-tech lives, Chris is an adolescent boy with a heavy video game habit who was profiled in the recent film Screenagers. He is being raised in a low-income community by his grandmother, who struggles to set screen limits. To address Chris' tech overuse, the family is working with a counselor at a community mental health center, who acknowledges, "The typical household that we see here is a single parent. A lot of these parents would have these devices as a substitute parent or caretaker in a way."

While children from all socioeconomic classes are besieged by a nonstop avalanche of phones and screens, the assault is heaviest for America's least advantaged children. A recent Common Sense study found that while higher-income teens spend 5 hours, 42 minutes each day with entertainment screens (including gaming, social media, and online videos), lower-income teens devote a disturbing 8 hours, 7 minutes to these pursuits. And while White teens spend 6 hours, 18 minutes a day using entertainment screens, Black teens do this for an incredible 8 hours, 26 minutes each day.

The Cost of a Life with Screens

While parents often buy their children fancy devices hoping that they'll foster learning, youth tend to look upon tech differently, as teens' top two online activities are gaming and social networking.

So, it's not surprising that The Learning Habit research, which studied family routines in more than 46,000 U.S. homes, found that kids' grades (when combining marks in math and English) decline if they spend more than 45 minutes a day using screens. The more screen time, the worse the impact. High-school-age teens who spend 4 or more hours a day with screens experience a full letter grade drop (e.g., from an A- to a B-) compared with youth who spend about 30 minutes per day. And for kids who spend 5 or more hours a day with screens, the "risk of getting F's is twice as great as that of a child who has only 15 minutes of screen time."

This helps explain why screen-heavy Black youth are struggling academically. In the latest Nation's Report Card study, only 16 percent of Black 8th graders scored "proficient" in reading compared to 44 percent of White students, and 13 percent of Black 8th graders were "proficient" in math versus 43 percent of White students. Such disparities obviously contribute to lower rates of college admission for Black youth.

A Low-Tech Legacy

As the Obamas leave office, I propose we seize upon Malia and Sasha's low-tech childhood as a model for raising children in the digital age. How can this be accomplished? First, schools and child-helping organizations should take a cue from Malia and Sasha's school by providing strong leadership about the importance of home tech limits. Parents I work with in my clinical psychology practice tell me that they want to set tech limits but refrain out of concern that their child will be singled out among tech-heavy peers. Families working together in a school or neighborhood community can overcome this challenge.

Such guidance will only help if families have access to positive screen alternatives. "I work two jobs, don't get home until 8 o'clock, but still can't afford afterschool activities for my kids," a single mom told me. Afterschool Alliance research found in areas of concentrated poverty that more than half of children would be enrolled in an afterschool program if it were available to them. This was true for more than 7 in 10 Black children living in poor communities.

By providing all kids access to homework clubs, tutoring, and other positive extracurricular activities that support school success, we will reduce screen time, boost school achievement, and diminish the income and racial achievement gaps that are tearing at our nation's soul.

Mr. and Mrs. Obama made a low-tech childhood a priority for their kids. We must do the same for all our children.

CONVERSATIONS