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  • The Opt-Out Family functions best as a bridge between digital absorption/addiction and a restored, human-first family and community lifestyle. Tweet This
  • The trick, Loechner argues, is to understand the attraction and effectiveness of digital apps and to use that information to, essentially, game the system. Tweet This
  • Loechner shows readers how to adapt social media’s own marketing playbook in order to defeat social media’s hold on families. Tweet This

For those who have been following the research on the negative effects of social media on kids, concern is high but solutions are few. The litany of problems caused by too much time on screens is so familiar now that naming them off is hardly necessary. Erin Loechner lists several of them, along with supporting statistics, in the first chapter of her new book The Opt-Out Family: increased risk of suicide, bullying, sexual abuse, isolation, and even nearsightedness are just a few of the problems associated with heavy tech use by children and adolescents.

What we do not know is what to do about it. There is some promising policy work afoot, including joint efforts by the Institute for Family Studies and others to encourage legislators to increase parental control and age verification requirements. Many researchers, such as psychologist Jon Haidt, agree that parental oversight is important, encouraging parents to delay their kids’ smartphone use until at least eighth grade and to restrict it for a few years afterward. Haidt sees this mostly as a problem of children playing with what ought to be adult-only tools, however, and not necessarily as a broader social problem. 

Other researchers, including journalist Tim Carney, see smartphones and social media as cogs in the machine of a wider  culture of despair, part of a pervasive constellation of problems in modern American family and community life. Still others, such as play psychologist Peter Gray, see social media as adjacent to the real problem, not as part of it. Gray argues that as the last available setting for truly free play among children and teens, social media use should not be restricted unless and until adults first provide kids with frequent, flourishing opportunities for off-screen play. 

Most parents, meanwhile, have some concerns about the digital world but feel they have no other option than to throw up their hands and give in. Pulling the plug with no alternative in place seems both countercultural and unlikely to succeed. We already know what is wrong with middle schoolers spending 5+ hours per day on social media, but the obstacles to leaving or even just adjusting this lifestyle on our kids’ behalf appear enormous. What can parents realistically do?

Enter Erin Loechner, a longtime blogger, author, and former social media influencer whose new book offers an array of flexible and creative solutions to these problems. Loechner, who at her height had more than a million and a half followers and her own TV show, is an example of someone who participated in the development of internet and social media algorithms from the inside, even giving courses and talks to companies and influencers on increasing their digital reach. And then one day Loechner and her husband gave it all up, stepping away from their intensely digital lifestyle almost entirely to re-envision themselves and their three young children as an “opt-out family.” 

What’s more, Loechner has now written a bold, empathetic, and practical book to help readers do the same. The Opt-Out Family offers readers a manual of eminently practical and wide-ranging advice on how to pull your family back from the social media and smartphone lifestyle and build a better family lifestyle instead. The trick, Loechner argues, is to understand the attraction and effectiveness of digital apps and to use that information to, essentially, game the system. Step-by-step, Loechner shows readers how to adapt social media’s own marketing playbook in order to defeat social media’s hold on families. Her book explores how the algorithm works and then turns these techniques toward building up family connectedness and enjoyment.

This approach to opting out is refreshingly active; it is not just about taking things away, but also about building things up. For example, Loecher suggests that we should do research and gather data on what our children enjoy, “just like the algorithm does,” so that we can more effectively woo our children back from the brink. We should also adopt Meta’s “remove, reduce, inform” strategy, designed for managing “harmful content” on apps, and use this tiered strategy to wean our families off tech and onto better activities and real-life connections. Loechner also claims that TikTok watches viewers’ faces while they are on the app, reading facial expressions in order to know what video to show next. It’s difficult to understand how TikTok collects and uses biometrics (see TikTok’s statement here, an ACLU summary here, and information on a recent settlement here), but in any case, Loechner argues that parents need to pay as much attention to reading their children’s faces as TikTok might. In this way, parents can learn what their children really like and dislike, and thus how to attract them back to real life. 

This active approach is both compelling and realistically achievable for families. But I will admit that when reading some of these suggestions, such as the TikTok biometrics section, I was distressed, not just because TikTok may be watching faces (awful, but unsurprising), but also because the book uses the digital world to instruct parents on what ought to be obvious through basic human attachment and experience. Are things really so bad out there that parents need to learn from TikTok how to understand their children’s needs and desires? I hope not. But I’m not sure.

The prospect of adapting the algorithm to encourage algorithm-free living unsettled me at other times, too. The Opt-Out Family takes a largely behaviorist approach toward transforming a digitally-addicted family into a freer, healthier one. For example, the book playfully uses knowledge and techniques gained from social media and other apps to try to change families’ behavior, accepting a long series of propositions made and proven by the algorithm as appropriate for use. It even includes “DM’s,” with extra tips to the reader, and “Selfies” with instructions on journaling or otherwise thinking through your family relationship with tech. This is, I think, likely to be effective in changing behavior, and yet thinking like the algorithm is a means I am hesitant to use, whether it leads to healthier activities for my family or not. I am glad to have this wonderful playbook of techniques, advice, and information, but I am also a bit wary of using the digital world as a blueprint for rebuilding real life, as the algorithm is not ordered toward the humane, and thus may be an untrustworthy tool.

That said, something both practical and familiar to those who are heavily engaged in the digital world may make for a more effective bridge between digital immersion and fully opting out than a philosophical exhortation would. Loechner ends her book with an extended plea for a humane approach to a screen-free life, urging readers not to rely overmuch on formulas but instead on themselves as they figure out how to help their own families. So, she gets it. 

Thus, the book functions best as a bridge between digital absorption or addiction and a restored, human-first family and community lifestyle. Ultimately, parents are the only ones who can lead their children to a better, screen-free life, and we can use advice and ideas like Loechner’s to get there. As she so wisely urges readers: “Want to raise an opt-out kid? You go first.”

Dixie Dillon Lane is an American historian and essayist living in Virginia. Her writing can be found at Hearth & FieldCurrent, and Front Porch Republic, among other publications, as well as at her newsletter, TheHollow.substack.com.