My kids are bored and being little monsters. I can’t give them activities all the time and keep turning on the TV to give myself time. It’s bad parenting. It’s too much screen time. It’s maybe all I’ve got though? I don’t even want to think about the long-term damage I’m doing. What do I do?
Tubed Out in Tallahassee
I hereby declare a moratorium on screen time guilt which shall last until such time as the pandemic ends or children return to school full-time. Until then, and only until then, parents are no longer allowed to beat themselves up for using the tools they have at their disposal to manage households that have been thrown into chaos.
Man, I wish I had power to actually enforce such a proclamation. I don’t, obviously. But I really want you and the millions of parents in your same predicament to hear me: Now is the time for “good-enough” parenting.
But here’s what that means:
Parents like you and I (yes, I’m guilty of guilt too) tend to worry over those procedures and rules that we believe will give our kids the best and healthiest outcomes. As such, we read the research on proliferating screen time and its correlation to proliferating childhood obesity, mental health disorders, and learning issues to heart. The media around the dangers of screen time is incredibly compelling. And when it’s combined with our own anecdotal data of children becoming zombified by screens (video game playthroughs in the case of my boys) then the dangers feel that much more acute and present.
But there’s a problem. Scientific understanding has a distinct half-life. The issues are never settled. That’s because science is always testing, challenging, and testing again to find better, more accurate answers to questions. Yes, there are well-designed screen time studies that have strong correlation to certain childhood outcomes. But these studies do not show causation. And there are a handful of studies that suggest screen time provides children benefits in certain circumstances.
And while the American Academy of Pediatrics does have screen time recommendations — one hour a day of high-quality, adult-accompanied television viewing — it’s important to understand that these recommendations are meant to provide the best outcomes for the most kids in the most typical circumstances.
Our current timeline verged from typical a long time ago. I’m not saying this to suggest that you should not be concerned about screen time. I’m saying now is not the time to be pedantic about screen time.
What we need to do as parents is to get through this the best we can. We need to center our priorities. One priority is staying employed. You need the time to do your work. If television is helping you do that, then it’s a valuable resource.
Another priority is our mental health. Stress will not help us, regardless of where it comes from. If we have opportunities to reduce stress (say by forgiving ourselves about screen time) then we should take them.
We also need to prioritize our family’s health. If the risk of sending a kid out in the world (masked, obviously) is too high, then keeping them in with screen time may be a perfectly adaptive health tool.
Finally, we have to prioritize love. The one essential thing that will get our kids through this is knowing they have parents who love them, and are happy to protect them, no matter what. If screen time is leading us into constant conflict, that’s a problem. If screen time is creating power struggles where we lose our cool and become unhinged, yelling monsters, that’s a serious problem.
I’m not saying be permissive in all things. Obviously you need to deal with living room sibling dust-ups and dangerous behaviors. But maybe there are some issues on which you can bend. There are some issues for which you have to agree you’re doing “good enough.”
Look, there are things you can try to assuage your screen worry: Implement mandatory outdoor time if you have a yard, create a schedule that distributes screen time evenly with toy time, incentivize housework by connecting it to increased screen time limits, turn off the TV on weekends.
But these solutions are only viable if you have the ability to manage and police them. It might be better for everyone if you try to inoculate your kids from the theoretical screen time dangers by doubling down on love and play when you have the bandwidth to do so. That means when work is done and the crucial home management is finished, you turn to your kids and focus on them only. You focus on play, fun, joy, and adventure. The idea here is that when the screen is off the investment into real-world parent-kid time should be off the charts.
Much of this comes down to the fact that we can’t give a shit about all of the things all of the time. That’s true when there isn’t a pandemic and it’s absolutely crucial now. Those worries and stressors that eat into the physical and emotional energy you have to care for and love your kid need to be jettisoned posthaste. Loving and caring for your kid, keeping them safe is good enough.