Let’s make this clear from the outset: We’re not here to make you feel guilty if your kids are getting more screen time than you’d like these days.
Sure, they might be parked in front of their tablets or your laptop for Zoom meetings with their teachers and classmates, and there’s probably a fair amount of time doing math lessons or Earth Day assignments.
We’re not talking about that time.
We’re talking about the time when you’re able to reclaim your laptop and you let your kids turn on the television or keep their iPads while you turn your attention to your own work, the thing that’s going to keep the lights on.
You told yourself at the start of this time of full-time working-from-home, parenting and teaching chapter that you’d restrict their use, like we all did. And then reality set in: you needed 30 quiet minutes for a team meeting without “Mom. Mom. Mom!” on a loop in the background, so you allowed some tablet time. And then you had to submit that proposal without feeling like you were a jungle gym so you agreed to more Nintendo Switch game time.
In recent years, there’s been a change around the thinking when it comes to screen time. While we should still aim to make sure kids are being active and getting physical activity, when it comes to online activity, the quality of the content they’re using is more important than quantity.
And as many of us continue to stay home because of coronavirus, we should focus on making sure what they’re interacting with is occasionally positive and enriching instead of the fact they may be using technology more than we normally would let them.
Jon Hyatt, the director of the recent documentary “Screened Out,” which looks at the impact screen addiction and particularly social media are having on us and our kids, spoke with numerous experts for his film.
“The first thing is, don’t feel guilty. This is an unprecedented time, we understand that,” said Hyatt, who is based in Toronto. “Me and a lot of the doctors and people that we talked to in the film, we understand that. Nothing like this has happened since, what — 1918? But here we are and, you know, people are doing what they can.”
Hyatt gives a recent example from his own home, when his wife found an instructional video on YouTube about drawing and his sons sat at their table to draw.
“That’s an amazing use of this technology, right?,” he said. “And that’s where it’s great.”
This is where the quality vs. quantity argument comes into play. Hyatt’s sons learning to draw, or strengthening their drawing skills, is certainly more constructive time spent in front of a screen than mindlessly watching “Fuller House” for an entire afternoon.
While YouTube can be a minefield and offer countless videos you don’t want your children watching, there is also Cosmic Kids Yoga, which combines yoga movement and poses with storytelling; the yogi, Jaime, sometimes brings her dog Mini into her “Zen Den.” There are videos for children in preschool through middle school. There’s always the classic “Sesame Street,” with videos that range from full-length episodes to shorts on learning to take turns, and TED has the TED-Ed channel, which offers a wide range of videos designed for kids on nature, poetry, and “A Day in the Life,” which describes what it was like to be a teenager in Ancient Rome or to be a Mongolian queen.
If your kids are the crafty types, there’s drawing videos as Hyatt mentioned but also learning how to crochet or knit, or maybe dig out your old keyboard and let them watch some piano lessons.
Hyatt acknowledged that now that he’s made his documentary, he gets flack about his own children and screen time. As in the movie, he stresses that he’s not against technology, and his own kids of course want their screens. One idea his wife instituted is that to get leisure time with their screen, the Hyatt kids have to earn four checkmarks — making their bed, doing homework and the like earn them, and at the end of the day if they have four they get time to use their screens however they’d like.
There’s also the notion that our kids will become zombies if we just stick a tablet in their hands.
Two educators believe that’s been blown out of proportion: Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and director of the Oxford Internet Institute, and psychologist Pete Etchells recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times where they argue that there’s scant actual evidence that smartphones and screens aren’t the danger to children they’ve been made out to be, particularly with adolescents.
Przybylski and Etchells note two studies, one Przybylski was involved with, showing that there are “only small associations” between daily digital use and adolescents’ wellbeing, and that the amount of screen time needed to have a negative effect is between 11 and 63 hours per day (which is obviously impossible).
They note there’s nothing showing there’s a proven “right” amount of daily screen time for children, and that there is evidence that video games largely are beneficial, improving reasoning abilities and offering an outlet for exploration.
And these days, when we’re supposed to be practicing social distancing, online gaming can also provide a chance for kids to interact with classmates and friends.
Based on the interview with Hyatt and the op-ed by Przybylski and Etchells, it’s what’s on the screens we’re engaging with that’s most important when it comes to kids.
In “Screened Out,” we learn that a big part of why we’re always picking up our phones to check Facebook or TikTok or Instagram is because of the reward sensors we get in our brain. Just posted a cute pic of your cat on Instagram or Facebook? You want to see how many likes you get and who’s commenting. If your friends were brave enough to post themselves dancing to “I’m a Savage” on TikTok, you want to know how many views it’s getting and wonder if they’ll suddenly go viral. Our brains are addicted to the rush of that reward we get when the hearts and comments start to add up.
Similarly, our children enjoy the reward of solving a puzzle on their screen.
As adults, experts in the documentary note, picking up our phones so often also means we might miss some of the things that matter, and our kids notice when we’re not paying attention to them, in turn believing that’s normal behavior.
If we’re engaging with our children and taking an interest in what they’re playing or perhaps showing them pictures of a new baby cousin on Instagram, that’s a different situation. Younger children generally aren’t going to be on social media sites alone.
So as with pretty much everything, moderation is good and enriching content is best.
If you need to hand your preschooler a tablet for 40 minutes of quiet to get work done and she learns some phonics in the process, consider it a win.
Looking for educational screentime resources? Here are some of our favorites.
ABC Mouse and Adventure Academy (currently free, normally has subscription fee)
Cosmic Kids Yoga (YouTube, app or Patreon subscription)
Epic! library (subscription)
Goodness Shapes (app with one-time fee)
Khan Academy (free)
Minecraft (one-time fee)
PBS Kids Games (free)
Sesame Street (free)
Stack the States (for older kids, one-time fee)