The Coronavirus Screen-Time Supernova

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Screen time.

It’s a self-explanatory phrase we were already pretty familiar with before the coronavirus epidemic swept over our lives and changed everything. But after nearly a year cooped up at homes, trying to talk about screen time limits and realities feels isn’t getting any easier. In fact, according to research reported late last week in The New York Times, many parents are struggling not to capitulate completely when it comes to setting and maintaining healthy screen-time boundaries for their kids.

In his article “Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers,” Times contributor Matt Richtel writes:

Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, parents across the country—and the world—are watching their children slide down an increasingly slippery path into an all-consuming digital life. When the outbreak hit, many parents relaxed restrictions on screens as a stopgap way to keep frustrated, restless children entertained and engaged. But, often, remaining limits have vaporized as computers, tablets and phones became the centerpiece of school and social life, and weeks of stay-at-home rules bled into nearly a year.

According to the digital tracking company Qustodio, which monitors device usage among 4- to 15-year-olds around the world, screen time doubled by May 2020 compared to the previous year.

That trend, Richtel says, is being fueled by the fact that many children during the coronavirus epidemic are engaged in multiple, different functions via screens. It’s not just playing games like Fortnite or Roblox, or watching YouTube videos. It’s school. It’s communication with friends. It’s multiple, different activities, many of which kids engage with on the same screen. Keith Humphreys, a psychology professor and addiction expert at Stanford University, calls this phenomenon “bundling.”

But giving it a name and describing the context in which it occurs doesn’t change the reality that the overuse of screens during the coronavirus lockdowns will still have huge implications as life begins to return to normal. “There will be a period of epic withdrawal,” Humphreys told the Times.  That’s because adolescents will have to relearn how to “sustain attention in normal interactions without getting a reward hit every few seconds.”

And “the longer they’ve been doing a habituated behavior,” adds University of Michigan pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, “the harder it’s going to be to break the habit.”

It’s tempting—very tempting—to just toss in the towel and say to ourselves, “We’ll figure this out when things are normal again.” I confess I’ve had that thought. I’ll confess further that our family doesn’t have this nailed down. Perhaps like you, we’re wrestling with these dynamics ourselves.

That said, I’d like to suggest that capitulating to that temptation to just “deal with it later” doesn’t serve our kids now. How do we tackle the problem? Let me offer a couple of suggestions.

First, we can reject all-or-nothing thinking. I’m very, very prone to this mindset myself: If I can’t fix it all right now, why do anything? But we don’t have to surrender to that self-defeating excuse. We can take concrete, measurable steps now if we feel things are out of hands with the way our kids are using technology. We can perhaps start by looking for a window to reclaim lost ground. It could be almost anything: We’re not going to be on devices for an hour after dinner. Or, We’re going to take a complete break one day a week, like “Tech-Free Tuesdays” (as writer and Plugged In contributor Jonathan McKee did with his family when his kids were young). Focus on one, concrete, achievable change, and work toward a win there.

Second, become students of your kids, their interests and their motivations. What do they enjoy doing that doesn’t involve texting or social media, Roblox or Fortnite? How can we encourage their pursuits in those areas? My 14-year-old son, for instance, has spent myriad hours playing electric guitar since COVID-19 started. He’s downstairs singing and playing a cranked amp right now. Is it a bit annoying? Yeah. Is it better than having him on a screen? Definitely.

Third, take a look at your own tech habits. Often, our kids have developed their habits because, well, we’ve modeled those ways of interacting for them. How are we doing in this area? What changes do we need to make—and perhaps make first—before we can help our children?

Fourth, take baby steps toward staying active. It’s been so easy the last year to gradually morph into the kind of couch potatoes that, well, none of us want to be. Even something as simple as an after-dinner walk combats that tendency. And if you’re disciplined enough to turn off Pokemon Go (I’m poking at myself, here), it becomes a screen-free time to remember what the outside looks like and work on our relationships with our family. It might not be walking for you, but a bike ride, a trip up to the local park to shoot hoops or toss a Frisbee. What ways can your family embrace activity and exercise together?

Fifth, making changes in this area require intentionality and engagement. Personally, I struggle with change. It’s not my favorite. The struggle is real, as the kids say. And at the end of the day, sometimes the last thing I want to do is engage in a game of Catan or gin rummy, or to take that after-dinner walk. But if I can say no to my selfish and lazy side (repeat: the struggle is real), there’s an opportunity to connect meaningfully with my kids and continue to help them navigate each daily step of this peculiar coronavirus detour that none of us wanted to take. (To learn more about how you’re doing with regard to intentionality and other core parental traits, be sure to take our 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment from Focus on the Family’s Parenting Department.)

But here we are. Yes, the screen-time battle has gotten harder—maybe a lot harder. I get it. I’m right there with you. Still, we don’t have to wait until everything is back to normal—hopefully sooner rather than later—to begin making small, concrete, positive changes that will impact our kids’ lives today.

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.

One Response

  1. -YES! This issue is very hard – my four kids are 100% virtually learning and want to still do “tablet time” after school! We are so grateful for a yard and decent sunshine even in winter, so we have a lot of outdoor time, and soccer has continued even with restrictions. We limit off-school screen time to 30 minutes at a time (hard for a 13 year-old to agree but it does work) and we call “tablet time” a privilege, so if their behavior results in losing a privilege, it’s tablets that are the first to go. Let’s win this battle through the strength of God!

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