An author reflects on her pre-pandemic pronouncements about childrenâs technology use and offers new advice, like focus on feelings, not screens.
Before the pandemic, I was a parenting expert. It was a cushy gig. In 2019, I boarded 34 flights. I checked into nice hotels, put on makeup and fitted jewel-toned dresses, strode onto stages large and dinky, and tried to project authoritative calm. I told worried parents about the nine signs of tech overuse, like ditching sleep for screens. I advised them to write a âfamily media contractâ and trust, but verify, their tweensâ doings online.
While I was on the road, my two daughters were enjoying modest, cute little doses of Peppa Pig and Roblox, in between happily attending school, preschool, after-school activities and play dates, safe in the care of their father, grandmother and our full-time nanny.
Parenting expert? Please. I took only 12-week maternity leaves, and for the second baby, I had both the nannyâs help and the big girl in pre-K five days a week. I finished my parenting book about screen-time on that maternity leave, which was kind of like writing up lab results before the experiment was finished.
My point being: I have never, ever, spent this much time with my children, or anyoneâs children, as I have over the past four months during shelter-in-place orders. Nor have I contemplated working full time, while my husband also works full time, without sufficient child care, let alone while dealing with multiple weekly deadlines and 5 a.m. live radio hits, in an insanely stressful 24-hour news cycle where itâs actually, kind of, my job to doomscroll through Twitter (well, at least itâs job-adjacent). By the way, âzombie firesâ are eating the Arctic and they are as terrifying as they sound.
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 anyoneâs, implication that they werenât good parents because they werenât successfully enforcing a âhealthy balanceâ with screens, either for themselves or their children. That was a fat honking wad of privilege speaking.
New York City â knock on wood â seems to be getting a small breather from the virus right now. As with any earth-shattering event, Iâm starting to pick up the pieces of my old life and work, and figure out what still makes sense and what no longer fits.
For example: My book was titled âThe Art of Screen Time,â but âtimeâ is an increasingly useless shorthand for thinking about digital devices. An immediate consequence of the pandemic is that strict screen-time limits â which were always largely the province of more privileged families, like mine â went out the door, everywhere. In March, when most children in the United States were sent home from school, traffic to to Zoom more than tripled and more than doubled for Google Classroom.
But on reflection, some of the ideas and principles I used to intone so confidently have actually shown their mettle in new ways in this new world. I offer them to you now, humbly. I speak softly and do not carry a mic.
Ken Perlin, Ph.D., a computer science professor who directs the Future Reality Lab at New York University, once told me, âAll 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.â Translation: Lean into video chat and real-time interactions. And play games, watch TV and videos â to be more specific, watch the âHamiltonâ movie â together as a family.
Not all content is created equal. Decades of research on graphic violence in movies and video games has suggested exposure can foster fear and desensitization. In children, extremely fast-paced media are suspected to challenge attention spans. And a lot of popular video games and many childrenâs apps have bells and whistles that can make them very hard to stop playing and also can hurt our childrenâs developing attentiveness. A 2019 study by Jenny Radesky, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, found that 95 percent of the most popular apps for young children â even premium âeducationalâ apps, including some featuring beloved childrenâs book characters â included ads that were often âmanipulativeâ and âdisruptive.â
Look for media that are slower. They are harder to consume compulsively and make the brain do a little more work. For littles, YouTube is full of read-aloud videos by the likes of the former first lady Michelle Obama and the actor Josh Gad. One small study put 4-year-olds in M.R.I. machines and found that a cartoon overloaded childrenâs audio and visual brain networks, while an audio-only story gave too few clues to the brainâs developing ability to decode sentences. An automated read-aloud with pictures was âjust right,â fostering the most connectivity across brain regions â a decent substitute for real lap-time stories.
Older kids do better with audiobooks and podcasts. On rainy days, my big girl can clock hours with her favorite dragon book series while drawing or coloring on the iPad, and the little one will sit next to her and listen for 30 blissful minutes at a time.
Harm reduction is an approach to public health that recognizes that fully avoiding risk or danger may be impossible. This should be our mantra right now because we are in a global crisis. It calls on us to be adaptive, flexible and as forgiving as possible of ourselves and others.
For example: Explosive emotions when the screens turn off are very common, especially among children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, or other behavioral or mental health issues, and typically younger children do this, too. Sometimes this is an issue of quantity and other times the problem is the type of activity. Ideally, if this shows up, we try to limit the kinds of screen-time most associated with those behaviors. Maybe itâs the time of day that matters most, or the length of time, or a certain kind of show.
But also: You might fail at limiting screen-time. Or you might choose not to limit it, because you have to work or do something else. In that case, you need a plan B: Prepare for and weather the tantrum or âzoned-outâ 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.
What Iâve come to realize with clarity in these dark, anxious times is that so many of our problems âwith technologyâdonât 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 phone is like a fentanyl lollipop; yes, itâs possible to abuse, but our pain, and the massive pain of the world driving us to it, is arguably the real problem.
The antidote is connecting to our bodies and our feelings, with the assistance of loved ones who make it safe to do that. One thing Iâve noticed immediately since the pandemic began is that itâs become far more âOK to say youâre not OK,â as Amy Orben, DPhil, a researcher who examines digital technologies and children at the University of Cambridge, put it to me. This openness can save lives.
And we can do this for our kids, with our kids, and because of our kids. They need us to be strong and they need us to be soft, too. From their birth, we soothe our children with our own bodies. From their first words, we can help them build their vocabulary and awareness of emotions, so they can learn to soothe themselves. Check in, ask them how theyâre 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 sadÂ âÂ a special soft blanket, a favorite song, a funny GIF or texting a friend.
You can fight with your kids about too much screenâtime. Or you can smoosh in next to them on the couch and ask, âCan I have a hug? Hugging you makes me feel better.â Thatâs one thing I do know.
Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education reporter and the author of âThe Art of Screen Time.â
News – I Was a ScreenâTime Expert. Then the Coronavirus Happened.