A faint, argent flicker frames my children’s faces like the light from a futuristic campfire as they sit motionless on the sofa. The glow transforms their features into ghoulish caricatures, with zombie eyes and pallid skin.
It is, of course, the light from the iPad. According to new research from Boston College psychologist Joshua Hartshorne, screen time has increased during the pandemic — no big surprise there — but the increase is largely due to a lack of child care and parental stress.
This dramatic switch in family behavior was not because millions of parents nationwide “changed their minds about the dangers of screen time,” according to his research. Parents have been told time and again that too much screen time will morph our progeny into passive blobs. As if we didn’t have enough to think about right now.
“Policymakers have treated screen time as a public information problem. Not just during COVID, but historically, the primary way of addressing screen time has been teaching parents that it is bad and giving them tips for controlling it. But if screen time is really about parents not having another option, then all these public education campaigns are likely to do is make parents feel bad,” Hartshorne said.
With this in mind, I talked to Dr. Michael Rich, “mediatrician” and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital for support. Basically, I asked him if we’re raising a generation of dead-eyed couch potatoes.
No, he said.
“The first thing to let go of is fear and their guilt. Those serve no purpose except to use up a lot of energy in a negative direction,” he says.
The pandemic has merely accelerated an ongoing societal shift: Kids spend more time on screens and toggle easily between the virtual and real worlds, which was happening pre-pandemic.
“We were shifting to more of an online world, and this has amplified it,” he says. “Now, kids move seamlessly between the two.”
The concept of forbidden screen time is an outdated relic from the days when our own parents had to pry us from Saturday morning cartoons.
“When we think of screen time per se, it comes with an instant negative vibe. Screen time is ‘bad.’ It’s a holdover from television and the worry our kids will be couch potatoes. The screens that kids are living and working with now are so much more than that. They’re not devices kids are passively receiving from without question. Kids are using them as power tools,” he says, as they adjust to online learning and use them to communicate with distant friends.
“Screen learning is learning — it’s different learning,” he says.
Fair enough, but this is hard to swallow for those of us raised in an age where “Family Ties” was a forbidden fruit and social media didn’t exist. So how do we cope?
First: Don’t be afraid of social media.
“What happened to a large degree is that parents checked out of parenting in the digital space. They said, ‘I don’t even know what Twitter is, and my kid is on it all day long. At least she’s not having sex and selling drugs,’” Rich warns. “That led to kids coming to the belief that this was their private space and that the less parents understood about it — and the more parents complained about it — the more they liked it. It became rock ’n’ roll.”
But it’s not a vice; it’s serving a real social-emotional function. Instead of forming their identities on the playground, they’re doing it with what’s available. So instead of condemning your child’s social media use, talk facts: Their online behavior can leave lasting digital footprints.
“It’s not the device or the platform that is the issue. It’s our behavior on it,” he says. “So instead of policing it, support their success.”
Trying to police it “triggers a very normative pushback of, I’m going to hack around the system. If I have to be told I can’t, it must be special. They will go underground. You will never catch up with them,” he warns.
Rich favors the grandma rule: Don’t put anything online that you don’t want grandma to see.
“They don’t believe horror stories of pedophiles or kidnappers, but they do care about grandma. They want to maintain grandma’s unconditional love, which they don’t feel parents have for them. They want to protect that relationship. Harness better angels of their nature,” he says.
If you’re dealing with a devoted gamer who can barely quit for dinner, use a similarly nonjudgmental approach.
“Instead of saying: ‘I hate “Grand Theft Auto”; it’s about stealing cars,’ sit down next to your kid and play the game,” he advises. Yep, they will surely beat you, but that’s not the point. Playing alongside them is a sign of love, respect, and the desire to understand instead of critique.
“You’re coming from a very different place than when finger-wagging from basement stairs. You’re coming as their student to them. It’s great for kids to have that role reversal,” he says.
This positions you as a neutral voice, should you have healthy suggestions about different games to try. Moreover, it introduces you to video-gaming benefits. For example, my fourth-grader is devoted to “Super Mario Bros.” (which is way more sophisticated these days).
“Video games are one of the best educational technologies. There are sets of conditions and rules, and it punishes or rewards you for behaviors. Find the elements in the game that are teaching stuff: inertia, movement, motion. There’s physics to be learned here!” Rich says. Who knew?
Finally, if you’re truly worried, you can also offer your kids alternatives: Dig out the bike. Go outside and build something. If possible, find activities that appeal to the same qualities that appeal to them on screen. Rich likes parkour, where players use the natural environment to create outdoor obstacle courses.
“There’s a subversive element,” Rich says, as kids scale walls, climb, and use their surroundings in unexpected ways, much like games.
Most of all, rest assured: There’s really no such thing as “too much” screen time.
“Quite frankly, the research indicates that there isn’t a point at which you go over two hours and all of a sudden things go bad,” he says. It’s more about what you’re not doing when you’re on a screen: Sleeping? Exercising? Eating meals? Speaking to your family in more than a grunt?
If this is the case, Rich suggests sitting down with your child and an empty glass. Consider that your 24-hour day. Fill it with his or her input: sleep, family meals, homework. (Use scraps of paper or talk in metaphor. Whatever works.) Then see how much time is left.
“You’re teaching them that time is finite, and they need to manage it. You’re leveling the playing field and having them take ownership of this time rather than adhering to or complying with rules from on high,” he says.
This is tougher for littler kids. My 4-year-old loves his iPad, and when my husband and I are working, we don’t have time to pry it from his sticky mitts. It’s better than a nanny. The good news here is that most preschoolers have an attention span of 20 minutes or so. Soon enough, they’ll find something new to do. If you’re in the same boat, make sure your child has plenty of other diversions nearby, like books and blocks.
“I’m less concerned about the kid having a total of two hours of screen time than I am about them having two hours straight of screen time. Put them in a rich environment,” Rich says.
Most of all, keep things in perspective. We live a digital existence. Kids are merely operating in a world that already existed.
In fact, “Maybe your kid is going to actually advance in ways that they otherwise would not have advanced,” he says. “We don’t have a choice but to keep calm and carry on. We are all in this together. This could be a rich learning opportunity.”
Still not sold? Well, because kids are on screens so much for school, they also could be more apt to play outside later instead of logging back in.
“They suffer from Zoom fatigue, too. We may be in a much better place to get them to shut the screen down and go ride their bike than we were when they saw this as a playground,” Rich says.
It sounds almost like the 1980s, doesn’t it?