Should children be looking at screens? Make a technology plan early.


Grab your stress ball: This week’s Ask Help Desk column is all about setting technology limits with toddlers and canceling Amazon Prime memberships. I don’t know which one is more difficult.

If you’re curious about online safety for kids and teens, check out our guide to setting up social media safety or our dive into all the data collected by the apps your kids use. To see if your recurring costs fit your budget, take our quiz “Is Amazon Prime worth it to you?” and click through our tips on canceling app subscriptions.

Have a tech question we haven’t answered? Send it to [email protected] Thanks for reading!

Q: How do I begin to protect and prepare my child for the Internet and social media as they grow? After learning more about the dark side of technology, I am completely at a loss as to how to plan for the future. I jokingly told my husband that I wanted to live off the grid to protect our son. Are there resources that teach parents what to look for?

To: If you go off the grid, take me with you! Managing relationships with technology is hard enough for adults, so getting kids away from screens can be overwhelming.

Even if your child isn’t online yet, it’s never too early to start researching and brainstorming with your husband about the approach your family can take. Check out the resource pages for children’s advocacy organizations Common Sense Media, Protect Young Eyes, and Wait Until 8th. Look for some opposing viewpoints as well. For example, some experts argue that calling for a reduction in “screen time” is too simplistic when children need digital skills to communicate and compete.

The technological limits will be different for each family. But Brooke Shannon, executive director and founder of Wait Until 8th, which urges caregivers to wait until eighth grade to give kids smartphones, shared some tips she thinks can help any parent strike the right balance.

First, start talking about devices and apps long before your kids ask to use them. For example, the refrain might become “In our family, we’re waiting for a smartphone until 8th grade so we can [blank]”. Fill that void with something specific to your family values, Shannon advised. Maybe your family loves the outdoors, learning about new subjects, or helping others. Removing technology is easier when your child understands why you are replacing it. To that end, it’s important to structure children’s lives so they can develop interests outside the screen, Shannon said.

When your child begins to experiment with technology, such as tablets or movies, take it easy. It can be easy to go from zero to 60, Shannon said, so talk to your husband ahead of time about device time limits or when it’s appropriate to sit your child in front of the TV. Before introducing any new app or device, set up parental controls so you can enforce limits without wrestling a tablet out of your child’s hands.

The Shannon household has a few cardinal rules, she said. First, there are no devices in the bedrooms, including TVs. Second, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school children are never given tablets or other personal devices unless the family is traveling. Third, no technology during home play dates. And fourth, an “educational” app or game never gets a free pass.

When your child asks questions or gets frustrated, have an answer ready. Shannon sticks with, “In our family, we follow the investigation.” With older children, you can even talk about the research results and what they mean. Finally, leave room for flexibility. If you have a cold, the rules about screen time can go out the window, and that’s okay, Shannon said. A few days or weeks of extra technology (or an entire pandemic) doesn’t mean you’ve failed, and it’s never too late for a family reset.

Q: I just tried pausing my Amazon Prime membership and it was an exercise in fruitless frustration.

To: Ah, the wonderful world of corporate websites, where “pay now” buttons are shiny and “cancel” buttons are conveniently absent.

You’re not the first person to notice something fishy about Amazon’s cancellation process. Last year, Norway’s consumer protection organization filed a complaint against the retail giant alleging that people had to click on six separate pages to cancel, with each page pushing consumers to stay on board US consumer groups, including Public Citizen, have complained to the Federal Trade Commission about it. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

These tactics are so well-known that they even have names: “obstruction” and “fidgeting.” Both are cases of “dark patterns,” or tricks web developers use to manipulate your behavior, according to Colin Gray, an associate professor of computer graphics technology at Purdue University and an expert on dark patterns.

If you’re a human on the internet, you’ve come across a dark pattern. Why, for example, does the popup that’s supposed to let you turn off tracking cookies usually offer two options: “accept all” or “more options?” Why does the popup offering you a discount embarrass you with options like “no thanks, I hate saving money”? And what about that count that shows how many other people are “currently viewing” an item on a retail site? It’s probably fake.

“It’s not that consumers are stupid or lack tech literacy skills,” Gray says. “There are people on the other end who are really engineering these situations to make them as complicated as possible. So you have to fight this really concerted effort by many in the tech industry.”

About a year after being called across the pond, Amazon changed its cancellation process for customers in the European Union. There is still hope for us in America, Gray said. The Federal Trade Commission said it plans to “step up” enforcement against companies that use potentially deceptive practices to boost their subscription revenue. In addition, some elements of California’s privacy law could also put pressure on big companies to relax on dark patterns.

“Transparency and customer trust are top priorities for us,” Jamil Ghani, vice president of Amazon Prime, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “By design, we make it clear and simple for customers to sign up for or cancel their Prime membership. We continually listen to customer feedback and look for ways to improve the customer experience, just as we did after constructive dialogue with the European Commission”.

In the meantime, these steps should get you through the cancellation process. At the end, you will see an option to pause your subscription. If you get lost, please email us and we can help.

How to cancel Amazon Prime

  • On a desktop, go to “Accounts & Lists” on the right side of the top menu. Choose “Primary Subscription”.
  • If you get a popup, choose the yellow button on the left that says “continue membership management.”
  • In the gray banner at the top of the page with your account name, select “manage membership” on the right. Then select “End Membership.”
  • Select the yellow button that says “cancel my benefits”. Be sure to read the buttons carefully. Then select “continue canceling”.
  • This is where you will see an option to pause your subscription. Or scroll to the bottom of the page and select “end to [date]”.
  • If necessary, keep confirming the cancellation until you’re done.

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