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How does a gorilla get too much screen time?


This next story might resonate with families who struggle to manage screen time. It's a story about a teen named Amare.


Amare had become withdrawn from his peers. He'd become less active. His focus on the real life around him shifted - all of which had his caregivers worried.

FADEL: But Amare isn't your average teenager. He's a 16-year-old gorilla who lives at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.

STEVE ROSS: Rather than just a couple of minutes a day of screen time, Amare recently has been really having hours and hours, as people have grown more and more interested in showing him their photos.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Steve Ross, who directs the zoo's Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. He says zoo visitors like to interact with Amare by pressing up against the glass of his enclosure and showing him their cellphones.

ROSS: People have shown him their vacation photos, pictures of their family. He is drawn to it, so he plops down in his little - his corner and looks at these screens as long as they'll be given to him.

MARTÍNEZ: He's pretty much riveted, except at mealtime - typical teenager.

FADEL: You might think any screen time is too much for a gorilla, even one that lives in a zoo. But many primates at the Lincoln Park Zoo regularly use tablets as part of training and cognition studies. They do, however, stick to about 5 minutes a day with these activities, instead of the hours Amare spends looking at visitors' phones.

ROSS: He lives in a bachelor group. There are three other teenage boys in there with him, but no females at all.

MARTÍNEZ: And Ross says the problem is what Amare is not doing within that group.

ROSS: What they're really learning is how to navigate that really dynamic social environment. So there's a lot of fighting. There's a lot of playing. There's a lot of social interactions. They have to learn how to find their place in the hierarchy. That takes a lot of work and a lot of concentration.

MARTÍNEZ: Teenage gorillas need to compete for dominance and form lifelong bonds. When Amare is immersed in the tech devices belonging to humans, he's missing out on a lot of developmental experiences. So the zoo roped off the area near his favorite window and put up signs to urge visitors not to offer their digital diversions.

FADEL: But there are other distractions. In the wild, a bachelor group would live far away from the females - not so at the zoo.

ROSS: We've put coverings over the windows so that the bachelors don't sit there and just fixate on the girls in the neighboring group. So, yeah, that's a thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Ross admits he's learned a lot about parenting by studying primates. But in this case, having teenagers at home may provide useful lessons for work.


LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) Oh, oobee doo.


PRIMA: (Singing) I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.