Parenting & the price of freedom

Nicco Mele
8 min readJan 4, 2023

It’s that time of year — the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s — when a moment is coming my children dread: the annual parental audit of their social media and screen time consumption. Word of warning: this email is all about how I monitor and manage my children’s screen time. If you’re not interested, skip it. For reference, my three kids are in middle school and elementary school.

One of the many wonders of contemporary parenting is the digital dilemma. How much screen time? What kind of screen time? Typing tutor is pretty different qualitative from pornography. What apps? It’s all overwhelming.

Although in some circles I am considered a pioneer of social media, I despise it. And although I am, at heart, a techno-loving nerd always eager to buy the newest gadget, I have written about how it is terrible for our mental health. And when I say “it”, I mean all of it: social media, smart phones, the internet, AI, etc. I think frequently of Jaron Lanier’s book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” (Argument Six: Social Media Is Destroying Your Capacity for Empathy).

In the context of parenting I find it all vexing. But I have deployed my tech-nerd skills to try to forge a path forward for my kids on this front. In particular, there are three tools I use that I’ll describe below — but first, it all starts with some fundamentals. Here are our family’s:

  1. Social media is a part of life — so we can’t ignore it. We let our kids have phones starting in sixth grade; we let them play video games and text their friends and watch YouTube videos. It’s part of life, a part of jobs, a part of everything. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules:
  2. Nothing until they ask for it. We don’t allow anything by default. We wait for our kids to ask for it. No phone, no social media, no video games — until the child specifically requests it. It is astonishing how well this one rule works.
  3. After they ask for it, parental assessment is still required: we evaluate all requests and discuss with our kids: is this age-appropriate? Who else is using this? Why do you want this?
  4. The price of digital is eternal vigilance. We monitor all digital activity. Specifically, we use an artificial intelligence designed to help parents be vigilant. More on that below. But my children understand the price of access to the digital world is surveillance, at least until they’re 16.

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Nicco Mele

formerly of @LATimes & @Kennedy_School - author of The End of Big - lots more at http://nicco.org — Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.