What is screen addiction and what is Relay doing to combat it?

Jon S.
April 5, 2018
When we announced Relay a few months ago, we shared our plan for a screen-free cell phone alternative—you might have read a bit about Relay's story back in December. As we get closer to launching this product, we want to dig deeper into the contemporary dilemma of cell phones, screen addiction, and our kids.   Child's hand in the air holding a brick red Relay A lot has happened since we started working on Relay over three years ago. So much has been written about screen addiction and its effects on kids. Major players in technology took a stand against the ways some technology is designed to maximize screen time and consume our attention. Some even joined grassroots movements like the Center for Humane Technology. Meanwhile, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have changed their recommendations on screen time for kids as new research emerges, and many parents aren’t sure what to do. There are so many voices in this discussion that it's hard to process everything being said. To make it a little easier, we’ll recap the major points of this ever-changing narrative so that you can make sense of it for yourself. We’ve talked to a lot of parents since we announced Relay who are very concerned about their child's current or future smartphone habits. 82% of us agree kids spend too much time in front of screens these days, and 83% of parents are acutely aware of the amount of time their kids spend in front of screens.¹ On top of that, almost half (42%) of kids would rather spend time in front of a screen than with the rest of the family.²
“Almost half (42%) of kids would rather spend time in front of a screen than with the rest of the family.”²
Their most common sentiment was: “Yeah, it’s a problem...but what do I do about it?” First off, we believe every family should decide what is right for them. We aren’t here to preach high and mighty practices and shame those who don’t follow them. We ARE here to talk about a solution.   Though many parents have doubts or regrets about giving smartphones to their kids, it does provide a certain peace of mind. 69% of parents agree that it is difficult for them to balance their children's safety and their children's independence and freedom³—which makes sense, as growing up today in the smartphone era is vastly different to the way we were raised. 87% of parents that we surveyed believe that the world is more dangerous for children today than it was when they were growing up⁴, with 64% of parents being very nervous about letting their children play outside on their own⁵. Providing a smartphone might allow some of that freedom, but at the potential cost of distraction, family conflict, and—as it is frequently called—screen addiction.
Image with statistic: 64% of parents report being very nervous about letting their children play outside on their own
So what is screen addiction, anyway? Isn’t that a bit dramatic? While the link between smartphone addiction, screen time, and health outcomes is far from clear, some research from the American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out a connection between extended screen time with childhood obesity⁶ and disruptions in sleep⁷. We’re not saying that everyone who uses a smartphone is a screen addict. Like any other fun thing, it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance between screens and the rest of your life. It’s just a little harder for kids to do that since their fast-growing and ever-learning brains have not yet developed the kind of impulse control and sense of delayed gratification that adults have. If you’re curious about whether your child—or someone else in your life—is showing signs of tipping that balance, Dr. Sarah Domoff at the University of Michigan has put together a list of nine behaviors to look for. These are pretty helpful in distinguishing a simple affinity for apps from something more disruptive. Some example behaviors of screen addiction are throwing tantrums when screen time is taken away, finding it difficult to stop using the phone, tablet, video game system, or TV, and needing screen time to relax or cheer up.
Your child may be dependent on screen time if he or she:
  • Throws a tantrum when screen time is taken away
  • Finds it difficult to stop using the phone, tablet, video game system, or TV
  • Needs screen time to relax or cheer up
It’s clear that many others see what we see and believe what we believe about this topic. If you’re just beginning to form your opinion on how smartphones and screen time fit into your family, it’s worth keeping in mind. Is this a problem? Really? Who are you to tell me how to use my phone? Smartphones aren’t a problem per se. They are incredible tools that help us every day in a variety of ways, but they also bring along some risks with them—risks that we sometimes don’t like to talk about. Smartphones, as they became more powerful and ubiquitous, are distracting us from our daily lives. We’ve all been there, you hear your phone ding or buzz and you instinctively reach for the screen to satisfy your curiosity. Sometimes that curiosity can distract us from some of life’s most precious moments. I have felt this personally, have found myself tuning out my kids while mindlessly scrolling Instagram. I found myself closing off to deeper discussions with friends and loved ones as I filled every moment of boredom with checking my phone. Talking to my friends and the team, they felt the same way I did.
"I found myself closing off to deeper discussions with friends and loved ones as I filled every moment of boredom with checking my phone."
Seeing how this was changing the way we spent time with our loved ones, we searched for answers and realized that it wasn’t just us—it was happening everywhere—and even as we caught up with current events, our friends’ vacations and Snapchat stories, we didn’t feel any more connected. In fact, we may feel like we’re missing out. Eric Klinenberg from the New York Times might have put it best: “A decade ago, companies like Facebook, Apple and Google pledged that their products would help create meaningful relationships and communities. Instead, we’ve used the media system to deepen existing divisions, at both the individual and group levels. We may have thousands of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on Facebook and Instagram, but when it comes to human relationships, it turns out there’s no substitute for building them the old-fashioned way, in person⁸.” If we as adults feel this way, what happens when we expose our kids to this alluring media at such an impressionable age—and with the pervasiveness of this technology, how can we shield them from it until they’re ready? To forge healthier relationships with technology, the technology itself needs to change⁹. We rose to that challenge, watching the way technology evolved and keeping an eye on voice and voice-first products. Watching our kids talk to Alexa and Google Home was inspirational. They could play their favorite songs and interact with the smart assistant in a way that was fun and natural. So we started designing around that premise. We began this journey over three years ago, working with talented, hardworking people to research, prototype, and build a new device—one that was rugged and portable for on-the-go play, high-tech and perfectly simple to use with voice. And we left off the screen. Back of girl's head looking into distance holding Relay That idea became Relay. Relay helps families stay connected in a safe and fun way. It has all the range, reliability, and technology that you love about your smartphone with 4G LTE and WiFi. You can keep an eye out from an empowering distance with optional GPS tracking via the Relay companion app. And without the screen, it cuts out all of the risks we were talking about earlier—it keeps kids connected without exposing them to apps, internet, or screens. Though it uses technology similar to a smartphone, Relay works a lot like a walkie-talkie. The push-to-talk button makes getting in touch simple, both with other Relays and smartphones. With Relay, you don’t have to choose between safety and freedom, because that’s not fair to any family. Boy leaning on tree holding Relay We’ve talked to a few parents about Relay, and here’s what they had to say:
  • "I like that there is nothing that can be distracting on this product. I do not want her going outside to play only to be using another screen. I want her to enjoy the outdoors as I did when I was a kid."
  • "This is a great way to give your children their independence while ensuring their safety."
  • "I would love the courage and protection this would offer my child in attaining independence safely. This device would help me loosen the reins a bit."
Like we said earlier, we’re not here to tell you what to do. We’re here to offer solutions—first as fellow parents, second as neighbors, third as the tech people who can get the job done. We believe that everyone can stay balanced and connected, and we’re here to help. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out via the Relay Facebook page or within our online forum for Relay called the Neighborhood.   About the author: Headshot of Jon S.Jon heads up the Marketing and Product Teams for Relay and Republic Wireless and is a father of two. He saw how much his sons loved using Relay, and has been working hard ever since to give kids everywhere that same opportunity for fun, independence, and safety. "On Halloween night, they were racing around the neighborhood while checking in with me on their Relay, mostly about the type of candy they'd just picked up… The next morning, they were asking for their candy—and their Relays!"   Sources: 1-2 Nationally representative online survey of 1,369 U.S. adults conducted by Republic Wireless; February 2018 3-5 Nationally representative online survey of 1,270 U.S. parents of kids aged 6-11 conducted by Republic Wireless; November 2017 6 Screen Media Exposure and Obesity in Children and Adolescents; Thomas N. Robinson, Jorge A. Banda, Lauren Hale, Amy Shirong Lu, Frances Fleming-Milici, Sandra L. Calvert, Ellen Wartella; Pediatrics Nov 2017, 140 (Supplement 2) S97-S101; DOI:10.1542/peds.2016-1758K 7 Digital Media and Sleep in Childhood and Adolescence; Monique K. LeBourgeois, Lauren Hale, Anne-Marie Chang, Lameese D. Akacem, Hawley E. Montgomery-Downs, Orfeu M. Buxton; Pediatrics Nov 2017, 140 (Supplement 2) S92-S96; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758J 8 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/opinion/sunday/loneliness-health.html 9 https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/02/05/579554273/screen-addiction-among-teens-is-there-such-a-thing

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