on screentime

I was going to write an entire post on how the flattening of time is impacting us all right now, but instead, I think I’ll write about screentime. I just wrote an entire rant as a comment on the Forever35 parenting group because I cannot handle seeing people beat themselves up about their kids’ screentime right now. Everyone is allowing their kids about 3000% more screentime right now because our children have nothing else to do, but us parents have plenty to do, especially those of us who have been blessed and lucky enough to still have our full time jobs in the wake of all this nightmare of an economic disaster. We’re struggling to manage domestic and professional spheres of existence at once and it is metaphorically juggling every action all day long. If we can turn on Dolphin Tale 2 and buy an hour of quiet when we can put one of those balls down, then we should take it. It may be the only way we can keep ourselves from burning out, and we should never shame ourselves for doing so.

In recent years though, I have begun to truly resent the screentime issue. Screentime has always been part of the Great Shaming of the Mommy Wars, but in more recent years, has become an issue firmly tied to economic class (which is often also tied to race). Shaming parents for screentime, or making them afraid that screentime is going to break their kids’ brains, is yet one more facet of the American Merit Myth. We have now added “screen free childhood” as a contributing factor to future success, and we have added it into our class hierarchy accordingly. At best, we see the absence of screentime as one more element in the idealized environment we’re supposed to build for our children so they can go on to live great lives with full potential. In reality, screen access is one more place where privileged parents can point at other parents and say that their children’s economic circumstances are their own fault because the parents of the “failing” children didn’t institute screen limits. It’s the child rearing equivalent of broken windows theory

These kind of discussions are also nauseatingly terrifying because our society has been taken over completely by screens – and the people who invent them will not allow their own children to use the devices. The wealthiest Americans are paying for the privilege of having humans interact with their children instead of screens. Like all parts of the American merit myth, a low-screen environment has become one of the components of an educational system that is used to perpetuate the success of the same group of privileged families generation after generation. It isn’t realistic for less funded schools to have the staff required to manage a classroom of 32 kids without using screens. It is also unrealistic for people who do not have a dedicated stay at home parent (or a dedicated caregiver) to avoid the use of screens as a way to keep their children wholly occupied so they require less supervision. Even before the pandemic, with more people working more hours for lower pay, with radical economic inequality driving those hours, parents rely on screens so they can manage the household with the minimal time and energy they have left. Having a screen free kid is a status symbol because we all live basically in a Black Mirror uber-capitalist tech dystopia at this point, and that is why it angers me so very much to hear parents beat themselves up over screentime when it isn’t realistic to cling to an ideal that is more achievable by the wealthy.

As much as I resent the issue and debate and shaming associated with screen time though, I have a definitive stance on the appropriate use of screens for children. I limit screentime for my own child because there is an unnatural aspect to the way that screens are all consuming, which is why we have yet to truly understand the impact of screens on our squishy human brains. “Unnatural” becomes “frightening” when it comes to how compelled our children are to watch those screens. Screen based entertainment, be it TV or video games, educational or not, is always going to have a higher engagement quotient than other activities. It’s a constant flood of entertainment and avoidance of boredom, with very little input or down time.

I also see screen based entertainment as the equivalent of the enchanted Turkish Delight in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a point where Edmund chooses not to eat his fish and potatoes at the Beavers’ house, because the memory of bad enchanted food drives out his appetite for real, nutritious food. I’ve seen my own child sit in front of a TV waiting for his allocated screentime because the ease of screen based entertainment makes “real” life unappetizing. Screen time is enchanted Turkish Delight: it makes all other activities seem unappetizing by comparison, even when those activities offer more mental nourishment than the screens.

Years of being a more avid reader than a TV or movie watcher has given me a theory: I see screen based entertainment as lazy story consumption. Screens are capable of pumping an entire story, complete with imagery and sound, into your brain. It’s kind of magical in that it requires your brain to do very little work, but rather, hands you the entire story complete with a visual context. Your brain gets all the reward and engagement of a narrative without having to do the heavy lifting of visualizing and imagining the story. It satisfies our love of stories and our love of experiences and occupies our brains completely with the sensory overload of sound and light in the process of doing so. No child should develop a sense that storied do not require imagination.

The other factor we all contend with are smartphones, those dopamine slot machines, evolved over time for the highest usage possible, and that is just the devices. That’s not even considering the games. I see toddlers playing basic smartphone games, poking at the screen with their pudgy little fingers while sitting in their strollers and it makes me a little afraid, because every single phone based game seems to be a derivative of that game in Star Trek TNG that everyone got super addicted to after Riker picked it up like an STD he got on leave:

And that’s not even going into the more “sophisticated” smartphone games, that are are now creatively designed to be more addictive than gambling:

(I am not even getting into social media here because that’s not a factor for kids under 12. Okay, maybe Instagram but I promise he’s using it as a creative outlet)

I’ve struggled with this as a parent for a decade and finally, I realized the only realistic answer for our family was for me to accept the screens where they were useful, and help my child be able to identify why screens are detrimental. I have to teach him to see the mental, emotional and spiritual nourishment in activities that are not screen based. I have to remind him that he will feel better overall from working on his own comedy than he will from watching SNL on YouTube. I have to remind him that he does take just as much happiness from playing board games online with a friend as he does playing Fortnite. Ben has to learn to take true happiness and joy from activities with sustenance, and has to teach himself that screen based entertainment is the mental equivalent of an enchanted sugar gel cube. Otherwise, once Ben gets past the point where I can control his every move, then he will promptly gorge on Fortnite and video games at every opportunity and will risk wasting hours, weeks, years of his life when he could be working on his art, or his sports, or spending time with friends and family.

Maybe if I had raised Ben without any of these screens, then he would only know how to get joy from non-screen activities. Raising him without screens, however, wasn’t realistic for a two-parent working household with an elementary school aged child. Now, it’s not realistic for a middle school student to not be able to engage with his friends through screens…or for him to be not be able to watch Netflix while his mother works during the long hours of this pandemic. I have to juggle the real with my own ideals, and decide not only what I want as a balance for my son, but what I want him to learn for himself as he grows up into an adult who will unfortunately be able to make all kinds of stupid decisions without his mother nagging him to work on his monologue.

So here’s what I actually posted to the thread in question:

For everyone on this thread, PLEASE do not shame yourselves. Please stop thinking you are bad parents for leaning on screens as a way for your children to engage with the world right now. You have the rest of your offspring’s childhood to teach them how to take joy in things that are NOT screen based, and you can do that when you are no longer trying to work full time from home while raising your children with no care support or relief. When we all get through this, teach your children where they can find happiness and flow and joy in their existences without screens. Teach them there are other things to love in this world WHEN YOU CAN, like board games and puzzles, musical instruments, books and writing, time with friends. Take them to parks, or to the forest. Teach them to love and engage with animals. Sign them up for a gender-equal Scouting organization or other wilderness group if they love the outdoors and you want them to do a screen free activity (I hear the Baden-Powell Service Association is great!) Whatever their jam is outside of screens, teach them to explore that just so they know what it feels like to have that that kind of real space happiness. But FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DON’T PUT THAT PRESSURE ON YOURSELF EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY. It is FINE to allow your child to watch as much TV as they – and you – need to so that you ALL can live your lives as a FAMILY without throwing a kid out a window.

Also, to the OP, I firmly believe that a few months of extra PBS shows is NOT going to brain damage your child. I gave myself guilt over this for YEARS because I let my son watch Sesame Street when he was less than a year old, and I would like to save you all the agony by telling you that so long as you teach balance and how to live life outside of screens as well as how to use them responsibly, your kiddos will be FINE. Also they will likely learn the alphabet early and probably pick up some lessons about diversity because Sesame Street remains a bastion of literacy AND kindness. I salute you for your good taste in children’s programming 🙂

(PS. I let my son watch Sesame Street from 6 months on, plus his beloved Mr Wodgers, plus Dinosaur Train and Thomas and the whole PBS gang and aside from constantly trying to play Fortnite more than his allotted hour a day, he’s fine. Then again, those video games are designed to be as addictive as a Vegas casino, so I don’t think skipping PBS shows in 2009 would have helped us with our Fortnite addiction issues in 2020. Separate post.)

I did not add, “screen time is an economic issue” or “screen time is part of the rapidly escalating class war”, because that’s a separate topic and what I wanted to say was for parents to give themselves some fucking compassion at this time. Still, all these things are tied up together: the screen time, our kids brains, their emotions, their addictions, and the way capitalism will take advantage of all those factors now and in the years to come. The cynical dystopia is already here, and is the reason we are even having to engage in this conversation in parent groups. A tech dystopia has no space for compassion. But that is also a post for an entirely separate day.

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