During pandemic, consider easing screen time limits

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

An expert rethinks her blanket objection to giving kids too much time on screens.

There are times, as parents, when we push aside the realities of the current moment and get down on ourselves for self-perceived shortcomings.

In today’s world, turned topsy-turvy by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are spending more time with our children than we ever could have foreseen. While in so many ways that is a blessing, it also comes with its share of challenges. This is especially true if we and our spouses are trying to work from home while simultaneously acting as our kids’ tutor, IT support specialist, and homework cop.

A recent article in the New York Times helps put this challenge in perspective. The author, Anya Kamenetz, takes a self-deprecating look at her work as a parenting expert, one who, pre-COVID, was an advocate for sharply limiting children’s screen time.

Her recent experience trying to play all the roles mentioned above has her rethinking previous positions:

“I want to take this moment to apologize to anyone who faced similar constraints before the pandemic and felt judged or shamed by my, or anyone’s, implication that they weren’t good parents because they weren’t successfully enforcing a “healthy balance” with screens, either for themselves or their children. That was a fat honking wad of privilege speaking.”

Kamenetz said her personal experiences trying to work from home while donning multiple other hats has more than humbled her. It has caused her to rethink her entire attitude toward screens:

“My book was titled “The Art of Screen Time,” but “time” is an increasingly useless shorthand for thinking about digital devices. An immediate consequence of the pandemic is that strict screen time limits — which were always largely the province of more privileged families, like mine — went out the door, everywhere. In March, when most children in the United States were sent home from school, traffic  to Zoom more than tripled and more than doubled for Google Classroom.”

What is her current attitude towards screen time?

“Ken Perlin, Ph.D., a computer science professor who directs the Future Reality Lab at New York University, once told me, “All we care about is whatever is going on between me and another person. Any medium that enriches that is successful. Any medium that replaces that is a failure.” Translation: Lean into video chat and real-time interactions. And play games, watch TV and videos — to be more specific, watch the “Hamilton” movie — together as a family.”

Today, Kamenetz believes that “not all content is created equal.” Be a careful curator of what your kids consume. Watch stuff with them. For younger kids, she is particularly an advocate for what she calls “media that are slower.” Some examples: YouTube where celebrities read high quality children’s books. For older kids, audio books or podcasts are a real boon.

One risk to lifting limits on screen time is what Kamenetz calls the “screen hangover,” during which kids can feel zone out and grumpy. Some throw tantrums. Here’s her advice for coping with this:

“Prepare for and weather the tantrum or “zoned-out” feeling that follows, with some physical activity, reassurances, a snack or all of the above. Talking to your child in advance about the screen hangover can help pre-empt it, especially as they get older and more self-aware.”

Kamenetz ultimately concludes that perhaps screens haven’t been the real problem all along:

“What I’ve come to realize with clarity in these dark, anxious times is that so many of our problems “with technology” don’t emanate from the screens that our children are glued to but from the disruption and alienation that creeps into our own relationships with ourselves and others as we allow our experiences and tough emotions to be mediated, numbed out, blurred, by media.”

The bottom line is this: We are living through challenging times, and this can be frightening and disorienting for kids. So what can we, as parents, do to ameliorate these negative emotions?

“Check in, ask them how they’re feeling, and help them locate emotions as physical feelings in their body. Start to develop a toolbox with them of coping strategies they can use when they feel overwhelmed, scared or sad — a special soft blanket, a favorite song, a funny GIF or texting a friend.”

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