New Sesame Street-themed PSA encourages kids to reduce mobile device use

Device addiction plagues us all — even Apple CEO Tim Cook. But children with phones and tablets are even more susceptible to the lures of apps and games, which often use psychological tricks to keep users logging in and regularly returning. A new PSA from Sesame Workshop and advocacy organization Common Sense aims to address kids’ unhealthy use of mobile devices by focusing on one particular problem: devices at the dinner table.

This is not the first time the #DeviceFreeDinner campaign has run — previous years’ spots featured Will Ferrell as a “distracted dad” on his phone at the table, ignoring his family’s conversations.

But this time around, the organization is teaming up with Sesame Workshop, which is lending its characters to a new PSA. The spot will feature the “Sesame Street” muppets modeling healthy mobile phone behavior by putting their devices away.

Phones are shut up in drawers, tablets placed on shelves, other devices are put in handbags — and, you know, thrown into garbage cans and stashed in pumpkins, as the case may be.

The muppets then gather around a table and happily chatter until they notice Cookie Monster is still on his phone, texting. (Don’t worry, their disapproval sees him eating the device in the end.)

The idea, explains kids advocacy organization Common Sense, is to raise awareness around media balance and encourage families to make the most of their time together.

It comes at a time when now one-third of kids ages 0 to 8 “frequently” use mobile devices, the nonprofit explains. But taking a break from devices is shown to have positive benefits, ranging from better nutrition and focus at home to fewer problems at school, Common Sense says.

Plus, it notes, simply putting the phone down is not enough — it shouldn’t be at the table at all, as research has shown that even the presence of a phone on the table can hurt the quality of conversations.

While Common Sense puts out a lot of material for children and families like this, Sesame Workshop’s involvement on the new PSA is particularly interesting given the company’s recent connection with Apple.

A new Sesame Workshop-produced show set to air on Apple’s soon-to-launch streaming service will teach kids coding basics — an agenda Apple regularly pushes to get its programming language, Swift, into the hands of the next generation of coders. 

In the show, the same “Sesame Street” characters who today are telling kids to put down their phones will instead tout the joys of coding to the preschool set.

The juxtaposition of a programming-focused Apple kids’ show and the new PSA are a perfect example of how complicated the issues around kids on devices have become. On the one hand, parents want to encourage their children to pursue STEM subjects — which often requires kids to regularly use computers and other devices to practice new skills, like coding with MIT’s Scratch or building for Minecraft. But on the other hand, parents see that when kids are given devices, addiction soon follows.

The real question for parents may be, instead, whether kids should have devices at all — or whether they should take their cues from tech billionaires and Silicon Valley parents who are ripping devices from their own children’s hands like they’re the modern-day equivalent of sugary breakfast cereal.

Perhaps Sesame Workshop should have chosen a side on this issue, rather than teaming with the billion-dollar company that’s now trying to distance itself from fault with regard to the device addiction problem at the same time it runs PSAs about kids’ device addiction.

Or maybe it’s just as confused at the rest of us are over where to draw the line.

Starting today, the new “Sesame Street”-themed PSAs will be distributed across networks and platforms, including NBC, Fox, Xfinity, Comcast, Charter, Cox, National Geographic, NCM, PBS, Univision, Telemundo, HITN and Xfinity Latino.

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