Should toddlers look at screens? How to make a tech plan early.

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Grab your stress ball: This week’s Ask Help Desk column is about setting tech boundaries with toddlers and canceling Amazon Prime memberships. I’m not sure which is harder.

If you’re curious about tech safety for kids and teens, check out our guide to safety settings on social media or our dive into all the data your kids’ apps collect about them. To check if your recurring costs fit your budget, take our quiz “Is Amazon Prime worth it for you?” and click through our advice on canceling unwanted app subscriptions.

Got a tech question we haven’t addressed? Send it my way at yourhelpdesk@washpost.com. Thanks for reading!

Tech plans for toddlers: How do I start protecting/preparing my now toddler for internet and social media as he grows up? After learning more about the dark side of technology I’m completely lost on how to plan for the future. I jokingly told my husband I want to live off the grid to protect our son. Are there resources that teach parents about what to look for?

— Stephanie, Ashburn, VA

If you go off the grid, take me with you! Managing relationships with technology is hard enough for adults — steering kids away from screens might feel overwhelming.

Even if your child isn’t online yet, it’s never too early to start researching and brainstorming with your husband about your family’s approach. Check out resource pages from children’s advocacy organizations Common Sense Media, Protect Young Eyes and Wait Until 8th. Seek out some opposing viewpoints, too. (For instance, some experts argue that calling for reduced “screen time” is overly simplistic when kids need digital skills to communicate and compete.)

Tech boundaries will be different for every 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 instance, the refrain might become “In our family, we are waiting for a smartphone until 8th grade so we can [X].” Fill in that blank with something specific to your family values, Shannon advised. Maybe your family loves the outdoors, or learning about new topics, or helping others. Removing the tech gets easier when your child understands what you’re replacing it with. To that end, it’s important to structure kids’ lives so they can develop interests outside the screen, Shannon said.

When your toddler does begin to experiment with technology — like tablets or movies — take it slow. It’s easy to go from zero to 60, Shannon said, so talk with your husband ahead of time about time limits on devices or when it’s appropriate to sit your child in front of the TV. Before you introduce any new app or device, set up parental controls so you can enforce limits without wrestling a tablet from your kid’s hands.

Shannon’s household has a few cardinal rules, she said. First, no devices in bedrooms, including televisions. Second, toddlers, preschoolers and elementary-age kids don’t get tablets or other personal devices unless the family is traveling. Third, no technology during plays at the home. And fourth, an “educational” app or game doesn’t get a free pass.

Remote learning apps shared children’s data at a ‘dizzying scale’

When your child asks questions or gets frustrated, have an answer ready. Shannon sticks with: “In our family, we follow the research.” With older children, you can even talk about research findings and what they mean.

Finally, leave room for flexibility. If you have a head cold, rules about TV time might go out the window and that’s okay, Shannon said. A few days or weeks of extra tech (or an entire pandemic) don’t mean you’ve failed, and it’s never too late for a family reset.

Stuck in Prime purgatory: I just tried to pause my Amazon Prime membership and it was a fruitless exercise in frustration.

— Bill, Clarksville, Ind.

Ah, the wonderful world of corporate websites, where the “pay now” buttons shine bright and the “cancel” buttons are conveniently missing.

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 through six separate pages to cancel, with each page pushing consumers to stay onboard. US consumer groups including Public Citizen have complained to the Federal Trade Commission about the same thing. (Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Those tactics are so well-known they even have names: “obstruction” and “nagging.” Both are examples 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 in dark patterns.

If you’re a human on the internet, you’ve encountered a dark pattern. Why, for instance, does the pop-up that’s supposed to let you opt out of tracking cookies I usually give two options: “accept all” or “more options?” Why does the pop-up offering you a discount shame you with options like “No thanks, I hate saving money?” And that tally showing 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 that they don’t have the tech literacy skills,” says Gray. “There are people on the other end that are actually engineering these situations to make them as tricky as possible. So you have to fight back against this really concerted effort by many in the tech industry.”

About a year after getting called out across the pond, Amazon changed its cancellation process for customers in the European Union. There’s still hope for us in the United States though, Gray said. The Federal Trade Commission said in October it plans to “ramp up” enforcement against companies that use arguably deceptive practices to boost their revenue from subscriptions. And some elements of California privacy law could pressure big companies to chill on the dark patterns.

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

Is Amazon Prime worth it for you?

In the meantime, these steps should get you all the way through the cancellation process. At the end, you’ll see an option to pause your membership. If you get lost, send me an email and I can help you.

How to cancel Amazon Prime:

  • On a desktop, go to “Accounts & Lists” on the right side of the top menu
  • Choose “Prime membership”
  • If you get a pop-up, choose the yellow button on the left: “Continue to membership management”
  • In the gray banner at the top of the page with your account name, select “Manage membership” over to the right. Then select “end membership.”
  • Select the yellow button that says “cancel my benefits.” Be sure to read the buttons carefully.
  • Select “continue to cancel.”
  • Here you’ll see an option to pause your membership. Or scroll to the bottom of the page and select “End on [insert date].”
  • If needed, continue confirming the cancellation until you’re finished

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