How Blind Spots and Biases Hurt Our Kids

Our culture pushes us to raise children in certain ways. Sometimes we need to push back.
By Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
September 27, 2021 Updated: September 27, 2021

All parents have strong biases when it comes to managing their children’s screen use. What are yours?

“My child would never send a nude photo. That isn’t how she was raised.”

“I don’t believe my child is lying to me. I have good kids.”

“Video games aren’t that bad. I played as a kid and read that video games are good for hand-eye coordination.”

“I keep an eye on what my kids do online.”

Parents love their kids and all parents have blind spots when it comes to parenting. Biases are a part of life.

Most of us can recall the fairytale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Charlatans come to town and convince the emperor to purchase the most magnificent clothes—clothes that are invisible to the stupid or incompetent. The emperor, unable to see the clothes, but too proud to admit it, struts through the town naked, and everyone goes along with the ruse. It’s not until a young child, his voice ringing above the crowd, declares, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” that the townspeople finally take notice. Their pre-set bias got in the way and blinded them—the crowd wanted so badly to believe that something was true that they did.

In loving their kids, parents can likewise develop blind spots that harm rather than help. These are some early pitfalls when it comes to parenting around screens: confusing physical maturity and intelligence with emotional maturity, believing that love always equals trust, relying too much on parental controls to prevent problems, depending only on conversations to change behavior, and believing common screen myths and seeking to confirm personal biases.

Raising kids on screens is no fairytale and ScreenStrong is here to remind everyone that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

What Are Biases?

Biases are necessary in life. They can assist our built-in survival skills and help us save energy. Our executive brain develops certain biases naturally in order to efficiently manage risks and make decisions. We depend on biases to shortcut that process. But those shortcuts can feed assumptions that blind us to early warning signs of potentially dangerous activities.

Here are a few biases that can catch parents off-guard in the screen world.

The ‘Not My Kid’ Bias, or ‘My Kid Would Never …’

“My son is not like his friends. He’s mature beyond his years, an old soul, and has really good self-control.”

“My teen daughter is so smart. She’s even more mature than her older brother. She’s capable of navigating smartphone distractions. I don’t worry about her at all.”

Truth: It’s normal for parents to think that their children are unique. Most of us see our own kids as standing out from the crowd and being more mature than they’re truly capable of being. We equate certain mature actions with thinking our kids are wise. But those glimpses of maturity don’t signify that our kids are more mature than their peers.

Looking at developmental brain science, we learn that all children and teenagers are immature. We also learn that even our pristine parenting skills can’t speed up or force the maturity process. Maturing takes time and isn’t complete until we reach our mid-20s, when the frontal cortex has stronger neuronal connections. Your child may be very intelligent, but he or she isn’t mature. Your child isn’t immune to making poor judgments when it comes to using adult technologies. We hurt our kids when we believe they’re immune to making bad decisions.

The Parental Optimism Bias

“I believe in my child. I want the best for her, so I trust her.”

“My child has never lied to me and I know nothing bad will happen to her online. If it does, she’ll tell me and we’ll handle it together.”

Truth: It’s easier to overestimate the possibility of good things happening and underestimate the possibility of bad things happening than vice versa. We assume that our son will never look at pornography and that our daughter will never sext, but statistics point to a very different story. Those types of activities have risen since the advent of the smartphone, despite our optimistic bias. It’s good to have a positive attitude, but that can cause parents to place too much trust in their teens. The decline in a teen’s emotional health is in part a result of that bias. The power of positive thinking doesn’t apply to screen use.

The Conversation Bias

“As long as I tell my kids not to click on certain things, not to give out personal info online, to look away when it comes to porn and violent content, and discuss other directives, they’ll be fine.”

“My kids will tell me if anything is wrong online.”

Truth: If conversations really worked, we would be able to eliminate teen delinquency (such as drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancy) simply by having conversations about it. Conversations are building blocks for a good relationship with your child, but conversations alone don’t change behavior. When we depend on conversations about digital safety, we’re hurting our kids. Ongoing conversations help establish you as the expert and the go-to person for life advice, but conversations are no golden ticket to screen success.

Anchoring Bias: The First Idea Sticks  

“I trust my child on her screen. When she was only 8, she told me about something bad she saw on her iPad and showed me. I’m so proud of her because she’s so mature. We have a close relationship and I have no reason to believe that she won’t keep being open and honest with me.”

“My kids have been watching cartoons on YouTube for years, and they’re fine.”

Truth: The anchoring bias says that we’re strongly influenced by the first impression we have about a topic or person. But that first impression can incorrectly influence our judgment for future assessments. Just because your child seemed mature for her age in the first grade doesn’t mean that she’ll be mature in seventh grade. In the same vein, her telling you something once doesn’t mean that she’ll tell you everything.

When we have an anchoring bias, we aren’t open to hearing new information. We tend to get stuck referring back to a single positive incident, rather than assessing our kids at their different developmental stages. What an 8-year-old does could be very different from what they do at age 12. Being open-minded to new facts and ideas will help us hold our ground with screen decisions.

Confirmation Bias: Seeking Facts That Confirm Beliefs

“Video games and social media are OK for my kids because contemporary culture, the education system, and all my friends believe that they’re fine. Plus, we have no choice! We don’t want our kids to get left behind in learning how to use modern technology.”

“Every kid in their class has a smartphone, and they seem to be OK. I don’t want my kids to be left out socially.”

Truth: We typically seek out and read the information that confirms what we already believe. If we want to believe that social media and gaming are good for our kids, there are plenty of platforms that we can seek out to support that bias. We do that in part because it takes less energy to follow the crowd and because we want our kids to love us, so we allow them to do everything their peers are doing. But going with the crowd is oftentimes a mistake—the crowd will take the low-effort, easy way out. Our culture will also lean toward the most financially profitable path, not the path that’s best for our kids.

It takes much more energy to step away from the crowd, study the facts, and swim upstream against the predominant culture. But before you pick a crowd to join, always do your due diligence and research first. If you have a gut feeling that your child is being harmed by his screen use, step away and do your own fact-finding. It just may save your child. Remember, you care more about your kids than the crowd does. When we refuse to look at other options we may hurt our kids.

Status Quo Bias: Change Is Harder Than Stasis 

“My teen already has a phone. I can’t take it away now.”

“My son has been gaming for years. He’ll lose it if I take his system away.”

We’re all creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break because it takes a lot of energy and effort—we lean toward keeping things the same because we perceive any change as a loss. That’s especially true when it comes to removing toxic screens. We think that since our kids already have access, it’s easier to keep them. It becomes too overwhelming to think about making the change.

Truth: Change is hard. Doing the right thing is hard. Implementing screen changes is one of the hardest decisions to make because it’s one of the most deeply rooted habits in our culture today. The truth is that generally, anything worth doing is hard to do, and this is no exception. Many kids get hurt because parents aren’t willing to make the hard changes to break them of their screen dependencies.

Availability Bias: Out-of-Context Examples

“I know a friend whose son was never allowed to drink alcohol before he went to college, so he binged and ended up with alcohol poisoning as a freshman.”

“I knew a girl who hated her mom for years because she wasn’t allowed to have a smartphone.”

Truth: This mental shortcut relies on examples that come to mind when a certain subject is brought up. If we remember it quickly, then it must be more true. You think of a friend who experiences a similar situation and jump to the same conclusion without context. The fact that you remember a particular story when you’re discussing a topic makes it feel important and true, but generally, we don’t recall the whole story.

How to Win the Bias War

You beat biases and blind spots when you can get solid information, then step back and look at the problem from a new perspective. The sooner you understand the science and warning signs, the less biased you’ll be.

It’s never productive for kids to spend more time on leisure screens than they spend on life skills or time with people. We know that it’s normal for kids to choose low-effort, high-reward activities over harder life skills, and we also know that screens are too powerful for them to handle. That’s why they need parents to objectively assess the risks and make proper parenting decisions.

And yet, at the end of the day, parents don’t need research studies or social groups to confirm what they know deep down to be true for their child. The day you have a gut feeling that something is wrong is the day to take action.

Stop trying to find people to confirm the bias that screens and video games can be good for your kids. Get clear information, be willing to accept new information, and change what you’re doing. If you find yourself searching for more support or excuses to keep your kids on their screens when there are signs of trouble, that’s a red flag.

Remove the Blind Spots

The day I realized that my way of thinking about entertainment screens was completely misguided, I was in the car driving my oldest son home from college.

“Mom, that video game did something to me,” he said. “I have been in bed for a week, and I am depressed.”

That was my defining moment. I was no longer interested in soothing my biases—I had to fight for him. I had to change my thinking for the sake of my son. It was lonely and hard at first, but I knew it had to be done.

Looking back, I regret that my blind spots were big and that I made many big mistakes. I know now that prevention is key. A good physician knows that an ounce of early detection and prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t wait another day to step outside of your current biases. Stand up for your kids now and take action for your family.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children to gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com