Durable Human (2 book series)

Don’t Freak Out About Screen Time, But Don’t Check Out Either

Child holds up reed basket he is weaving

Way back B.C. (Before Coronavirus), a chief complaint from kids about their parents went something like this: “All my mom cares about is her phone” or “My Dad doesn’t really talk to me.” For years, too many of us have been in a state of continuous partial attention. Even when someone was sobbing in front of us, we’d have one eye on our phones. But now, confined in the chaos, we have an opportunity: for a parenting Do Over.

First off, we need to know the difference between Us and Them—in mind and in body.

Our kids are worried and anxious, just as we are. But we’re the ones in charge—their Reassurers-in-Chief. They need to know we’re there for them, no matter what.

“Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Ask how they’re feeling,” advised Dr. Robin Gurwitch, psychiatry professor at Duke University School of Medicine, on a call with reporters about the virus and mental health. “That way, you can get a sense of their understanding, validate their feelings, and correct misperceptions.”

To ensure lots of reassuring face-to-face contact and hugs, we can take a tip from the helpful American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Use Planner: establish zones in the household and times of day (at least at meals and bedtime) that are free from distractions such as personal technology—theirs and ours.

When reading Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won (NYT March 31, 2020) by reporter Nellie Bowles, we need to consider the source: an adult with a fully formed brain.

Kids’ brains are still developing and will be until their mid-twenties. Under age 5, brains are especially malleable—or “plastic”—and respond directly to a child’s lived experience. Little ones need to smell, taste and feel the real world (and loving care-givers’ faces). The 2-D environment of a screen simply can’t provide the rich full-sensory 3-dimensional activity babies and toddlers need for their brains to fully bloom.

We all benefit from structure during these turbulent times. So, whatever their age, kids need a general day plan including full-sensory play or other exercise (preferably with some time outdoors), skill-building and/or chores, and a bedtime wind-down practice.

“Maintaining routines provides a sense of security,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, longtime parent advisor and co-founder of the non-profit Defending the Early Years in this webinar sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Especially, she adds, “in a situation that may go on for a while.” (See the excellent DEY guidebook: “Supporting Your Child Through Covid-19.)

A good night’s sleep was increasingly scarce before coronavirus. We can take advantage of this unusual time to strive for better sleep hygiene. “When sleep’s disrupted there is a cascading effect of other concerns and challenges,” Dr. Gurwitch reminds us—which we certainly don’t need right now on top of everything else.

Phones, tablets, game consoles, TVs, etc. are proven slumber disrupters, so keeping them out of the bedroom at night isn’t anti-tech, it’s pro-sleep.

Having form to the day also keeps kids from disappearing for hours into their technology. Certainly, as we do, kids need to socialize and do through avenues like video games, Facetime, and social media. Even if we’d like to think we Don’t [need to ] Freak Out About Quarantine Screen Time—a New York Times Op-Ed co-authored by a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute whose supporters include Microsoft, Facebook, and Google Ireland, Ltd.—as family success drivers, we can’t be asleep at the wheel. We still need to keep track of what they’re doing on devices and for how long.

Ambiguous or absent device guidance can make kids anxious, prone to fights with you, and at increased risk for digital dependence—right down to the toddlers.

Screen media has “a very addictive power,” says Anne-Lise Ducanda, M.D., a French pediatrician. She had noticed more and more kids under five in her practice with drastic changes in behavior. She traced the problem to excessive screen use. The condition has since been dubbed Virtual Autism. “Little by little,” as she says in this video, “the child can no longer do without and demands it more and more. If the parents try and withdraw him, he can go into a real meltdown.”

Allowances of screen activity can actually be a relief for kids by giving them something to look forward to or work toward.

This can be to your benefit if you work remotely at home. When you know you really need to focus, such as during a conference call, the kids can engage in what they need or like to do. That could be schoolwork, allotted free time on devices, or self-directed imaginative play such as with Legos, Play-Doh, a box of dress-up clothes, a big cardboard box, or playing hide and seek, freeze tag, or other physical game.

Before the outbreak, lots of families fell into a pattern of living almost separate lives, with kids doing their schoolwork or on video games or social media, while parents worked or did their own thing. But for households to function now, it’s all hands on deck.

When kids do chores, they get a morale-building sense of purpose while boning up on needed self-reliance skills, not to mention keeping the adult(s) in charge from being overworked and resentful. Even toddlers can do simple tasks like picking up their toys or washing lettuce for a salad. With light supervision, middle and high schoolers can plan and make simple meals.

That’s another opportunity. Kids could come out of this crisis better prepared for independent adulthood than they would have been. 

All this new coordination will likely require on-demand or regular household meetings where you can set expectations, dole out chores, share news, and everyone can air their feelings.

But even during pure down time, we need to beware of boredom quick-fixes. If we constantly fill our minds with others’ clever creations (video games, social media, movies, etc.), there’s no space left where we can create.

As I posit in The Durable Human Manifesto:

“One wonders what might have happened if the Steves were born today. Would the flicker of a parent’s smartphone usurp young Jobs’ wandering thoughts? Would video games devour little Woz’s time to tinker?”

A friend of mine is an American nurse who survived harrowing work in war-torn Darfur and Kosovo. She now lives in Paris and oversees the upbringing and education of her four young children (who normally attend Montessori). The family moved to France last year because she was unhappy with the tech-heavy approach of U.S. schools.

Other than a half hour of story time on weekdays over Skype, the kids are screen free.

“Our job as parents right now is to take a deep breath and just give lots of love. If they don’t have screens to turn to, kids will rise to the occasion,” she assured me when we spoke this week by smartphone. (For example, they knit hats for the homeless.) “It’s actually easier for me that [not using screens] is a non-variable. They will entertain themselves and find other options.”

As we spoke, her 6-year-old asked if he could make something from a kids’ cookbook. “Yes,” she answered. “as long as you do it by yourself.”

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a Syracuse University adjunct professor of broadcast and digital journalism, parent of three, and author of How to Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design.

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Madden 21 Coins

Learned a lot, thanks for good post, keep going!

Lori R. Frome

Great thoughts to make us busy parents think about how we want to engage or disengage from our children during this time to produce. Many of us are working from home and need to disengage from our children even though they quarantined with us at home daily to get work done! Jennifer Joy Madden- you have given us some excellent thoughts to ponder as we think about what they could be doing to help their development during the times that we as parents need to disengage due to our own work commitments. You have also provided healthy examples of what to do when we are able to engage them and how to make the most out of that time. I love the balance, caution and points to ponder your post brings! Thank you! Please, any parents with a child like mine who was diagnosed with ASD, click on the link for “Virtual Autism“ to learn more about how these children can be especially vulnerable to screen time and how reduction or complete elimination of screen time paired with a highly social approach may greatly benefit them during this time of COVID-19 and in their daily lives. Thanks again for helping us all to become more DURABLE! We need this now more than EVER!!


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