Parents Say ‘Yes’ To Screen Time During the Pandemic

It’s a matter of sanity

Key Takeaways

  • Fraught parents are rebelling against the advice that they limit screen time during the pandemic. 
  • Many parents say that screens are letting their kids socialize and explore in ways they would not be able to during social-distancing measures.
  • Some experts say that screen time is not that bad for kids.
Two young children playing video games at home in the living room.
379167 / Getty Images

Nearly every parent claims to want to cut down on their kids’ screen time, but many of them seem to be sick of hearing about how electronics are ruining their children during the pandemic. 

The latest flashpoint in the kids vs. screens debate was a recent article in The New York Times decrying the increasing use of gadgets by children. One expert cited warned that children would face "addiction withdrawal" from their electronics once they exited lockdown. Many parents are having none of the finger-wagging, however.

"Online is their only way to socialize with friends (Zoom, Houseparty, etc.)," said Kristin Wallace, a Boston mother of a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old, in an email interview. "It allows me the time to get things done because we can't have sitters and nannies anymore. They are with me 24/7, and I need to get things done as well. Sometimes, I just need a break, and screen time keeps them entertained."

Pandemic Puts Kids Online More

It’s not that parents haven’t gotten the message that too much screen time is bad for kids. They have read about the studies linking screen time with everything from increased obesity to more anxiety among children.

More time spent with electronics is an issue for a lot of parents. One study found that 60% of parents said their children spent no more than three hours on devices before the pandemic began. Now, 70% estimate their kids spend at least four hours with screens.

"You can't draw hard lines in hard times; flexibility, discussion, empathy, and connectivity are what we need right now."

But not all experts agree that screen time is terrible. "Parents are often given the message that their job is to monitor and control technology use," Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, studying youth and new media practices, said an email interview.

"I try to encourage parents to try to prioritize connection over control. Social and digital media is something that can connect families if parents can take a stance that is more curious and less judgmental."

"In fact," Ito continued, "most parents actually report seeing digital media as a positive source of connection in their family. Still, the media and the public discourse often make them feel guilty when they are not limiting or monitoring."

Roblox to the Rescue

Wallace is among the parents who are wrestling with the complexities of more screen time for their children during the pandemic. She works as the business and human resources manager of Viage LLC, a consulting and engineering services firm.

Her kids spend "significantly" more time on screens, she admitted. "They play Roblox and Minecraft with friends while also talking to them on Houseparty," she wrote. "My 10-year-old has gotten really into the news with all the craziness that has gone on, so she wants to watch the news all the time now. They are also in a virtual school, so my 10-year-old is on the computer most of the school day. My 6-year-old watches a lot of 'My Little Pony,' but it also inspires her to make cool artwork and play with her toys."

Wallace said she knows that too much time on screens can be a problem, “but I don't know what the alternative is right now. My husband actually really disagrees with me about allowing more screen time right now, but I feel like it is the only way to make it through most days.”

A child playing on a hand-held gaming system.
Paco Navarro / Getty Images

She said that going online is also the only way for her kids to socialize and "play" with their friends, since her 6-year old is immunocompromised. "So, if they want to play Minecraft and Roblox with their friends for hours...I’m ok with it because I feel bad for the kids. Their lives have been totally changed by the pandemic, so I figure the screen time is a necessary evil to manage."

Quality Vs. Quantity

Many parents say that figuring out how much screen time is suitable for their children is about quality rather than quantity. Beth Silver, the managing director of Doubet Consulting, is the mother of a 15-year-old and 9-year-old, and said in an email interview that she worries more about the kinds of things they are watching on screens, rather than overusing the screens, themselves.

"My older son's uses technology (gaming, discord, etc.) to communicate with friends," Silver said. "His social outlet is using his technology. Gone are the days of spending hours talking on the phone. My younger son who socializes differently uses technology for entertainment and communication."

And she’s found that there’s a silver lining to all the screen time. Her older son learned how to build a computer from YouTube. "He practiced his organizational and negotiating skills so that we could approve the costs," she said.

"I am not concerned about screen time that benefits their physical well-being, supports them as learners, or nurtures their relationships with family and friends."

"If the pandemic did not occur, I don't think we would have agreed to this project, or he would have asked. My son uses his computer every day (school and friends), and I am thankful. It's expanded his interests. I also am on the continual lookout for specific graphics cards."

While some parents worry that their kids will have their brains fried by too much screen time, the more significant concern for many is the social isolation caused by social distancing rules and many schools switching to distance learning. Linda Mueller, a life coach, said in an email with Lifewire that she lets her 11-year-old daughter spend more time on her iPad because it allows her to communicate with her friends and family. 

"The group she spends the majority of her online time with uses FaceTime to speak while playing Bloxburg, which is a Roblox role-playing game," she said. "I'm thankful that they chose a somewhat educational game that requires them to manage a budget, collaborate, and design homes, hotels, etc."

Pre-pandemic, Mueller’s daughter was on her iPad 2-3 hours a week, on average, because she was busy with school, sports, and family activities. Now, she's on her iPad about 2-3 hours a day. "My daughter understands why she is allowed to spend more time online and that it will be reduced once life begins to normalize," she said.

"Also, we work to counterbalance any effects that cause worry. We make sure that she stretches out her back and ask her to wear glasses that filter out the blue light. Also, we still spend most evenings eating dinner and then watching TV or playing a game as a family."

Interaction Beats Consumption

A significant concern for Lynette Owens, the founder and global director at Trend Micro's Internet Safety for Kids and Families, is children consuming rather than interacting online.

A child playing a handheld video game under the covers.
milijko / Getty Images

"I think the mindless scrolling on social media or passive consumption of content on YouTube that is not educational or beneficial to them is a big concern because that is time they could either be active offline or doing something else online that benefits them," she said in an email interview with Lifewire.

"I am not concerned about screen time that benefits their physical well-being, supports them as learners, or nurtures their relationships with family and friends."

Like many parents, Karen Aronian said in an email interview that the pandemic has been hard for her children’s mental health. "Kids are not getting their social needs met," she said. "Young adult maturation depends on independent time with their peers to go through this essential phase in their adolescent development. Yet, they've been unnaturally paused in their growth and development, some stunted."

Going online has been an outlet for her children, who often are cooped up for long periods, Aronian said. "My kids do a lot of chess online at chess.com and uscf.com, and they set up fun social chats and Kahoot with their friends," she added.

"They laugh, they relate, and they get their social glass somewhat full, and that makes us feel better, parenting too. You can't draw hard lines in hard times; flexibility, discussion, empathy, and connectivity are what we need right now. This, too, shall pass, and our pre-COVID screen times will readjust, and the togetherness, the activities, and the outdoors will take back screen overtime."

We can all agree that too much screen time is bad for kids. These aren’t ideal times for anyone, though. Let’s give the kids and their parents a break.

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