Screen Time

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Let 2021 Be The Year You Let Go Of Screen Time Guilt

The experts say stop sweating it. Seriously.

As is often the case with disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic undermined a lot of our assumptions. This applies to both the political — it turns out we need a functioning federal government and ours wasn’t functioning so well — and the personal. When we pick up the pieces of our lives post-COVID, we’re going to need to decide which ones still fit, and I have a suggestion for a small one that parents should throw away.

Stop feeling guilty about screen time.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn't set limits. It means you should move on from the default position that letting your kids use digital devices is somehow harmful or bad, something to apologize for or justify.

Here's how to think about it instead.

The World has Changed — And It Was Always Going To

The last 10 months have been a giant natural experiment in radically increasing time spent on digital devices. Our in-person options for connection, for learning, and for fun were often gone — or at least severely curtailed. Into the breach stepped Zoom school and dance class; FaceTime visits with relatives and friends; Netflix babysitting and YouTube story time; socially distanced online grocery ordering; working from home.

Much of it sucked, but thank goodness we had it. The cadre of people privileged enough to work from home would have been orders of magnitude smaller 10 or 20 years ago. The devastating unemployment we’re seeing would have been even greater, or the infections from workplaces would be even higher.

Being backed into a corner has allowed us to see more clearly which methods of technological connection worked and what was too poor of a substitute. It forced tradeoffs that weren’t previously visible. I’ve spoken to a family whose kids attend a mix of remote and in-person school and who have prioritized outdoor time even more because of the necessity of learning via screens. Another single mom blessed her daughter’s aimless, hourslong FaceTime calls with her friends as the only real social outlet she had. Families are talking more about what kinds of experiences they want to have, less about arbitrary limits on which devices they use.

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The experts agree with this approach. Early in the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement that essentially removed hard time-limit recommendations for kids’ screen time.

(It's also worth noting that the alarmists may be working off of faulty data. The effects of digital devices on kids are also notoriously hard to study. Rebecca Ruiz has written about the lag inherent in long-term screen time research, where the devices present at the beginning of a study are obsolete by the end.)

Worry More About Quality Than Quantity

Quality time can happen on screens or off, said Michael Robb, the senior director of research for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that researches and makes recommendations for children’s digital media use. “I think it’s a better conversation to have. It’s more nuanced,” he said. “Screen time itself is a not very useful metric for understanding kids’ experiences with media and technology.”

Many parents I’ve spoken with are already thoughtfully ignoring the guidelines that didn’t suit them. I know of one friend whose kids can watch more TV as long as it’s in Korean, the language she’s trying to help them learn and maintain.

That said, there are some guidelines around making the most of screen time.

  • For digital entertainment, that means seeking out age-appropriate, high-quality content, which generally means a child-development expert had a hand in creating it.
  • Paying for mobile games will often ensure an ad-free experience. (And a free game will quickly get expensive if your kid pays for extra lives or points.)
  • Co-watching with young kids is recommended and can be great fun as they get older.
  • Set up video games on a private server, or disable online multi-player options until you know your child can handle them.

Embrace The Positive Aspects Of Different Screens

If there has been a consistent theme in my own parenting life, it’s that as my first child has grown, I’ve been able to see more clearly the upsides of the technologies that I was mostly concerned with regulating as a “good mother.”

Video games are one example. They can improve spatial reasoning, especially for girls, said Yalda T. Uhls, who holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from UCLA and is the founder of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, an organization that brings together media creators and child development experts. Playing in a Minecraft sandbox with her dad has been a fun bonding experience for them.

Other beneficial experiences abound. There are episodes of children’s shows that help explain the changes wrought by the pandemic. The popular mental health app Headspace collaborated with Sesame Street Workshop to create mindfulness videos for kids ages 2 to 5. Even a family movie night falls into this category. I’d wager most parents aren’t strangers to the beneficial opportunities that digital media can provide, even if we don’t always talk about it.

All This Advice Applies To Adults Too

Parents and caregivers are dealing with pandemic stress and disruption right alongside our kids, often with our own coping mechanisms frustratingly out of reach. Modeling the behaviors that we want our kids to learn — making time for each other, getting outside, not wallowing in a filter bubble — can have beneficial effects for grownups and make it easier to enforce the limits when necessary.

Where might this leave us? Understanding that we can recognize in our kids, and teach them to recognize in themselves, when is “too much.” The goal is to help kids learn the tools to regulate themselves and balance their own lives with time for the outdoors and exercise, friends, nutritious food, snacks, and yes, screen time. Guilt doesn’t help in this effort.

So to agonizing over screen time for our kids, I say good riddance. Though fellow doom-scrollers like myself may have finally learned that we need to more tightly regulate it for ourselves.