Anya Kamenetz used to be so sure about what parents needed to do about screen-time. But that was B.C. - Before Coronavirus.
Mums and dads working from home - or attempting to. Kids cut off from school, friends and activities. Everybody stuck in the house, cranky and craving carbs … It’s a reality almost all of us have experienced - and some of us are still in thick of.
In Australia and all around the world, pandemic-related restrictions have increased our dependence on our devices. How could it be otherwise? One survey of more than 3,000 parents found that kids’ screen-time had increased by 500% during the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, most experts assured parents this was okay. It was a matter of survival. Of sanity. And anyhow it would all be over soon. Or so we hoped and prayed.
Six months down the track, it’s far from all over. And in that time, a new philosophy around screen-time limits has begun to percolate. Anya Kamenetz, journalist, educator and author of The Art of Screen-time, is one of the leading voices in that quiet revolution.
Kamenetz admits that the advice she so confidently dispensed pre-pandemic now seems glib, if not downright irrelevant.
Today, after the experience of working from home with two small children shut out from school and daycare, she says, “I know better. I know that I know nothing.”
“What I’ve come to realise with clarity in these dark, anxious times is that so many of our problems ‘with technology’ don’t 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.”
In her life B.C., “I told worried parents about the nine signs of tech overuse, like ditching sleep for screens. I advised them to write a family media contract and trust, but verify, their tweens’ doings online,” she recalls. That good advice, she now believes, “was a fat honking wad of privilege speaking.”
Kamenetz’s new rules are less about quantity than they are about quality - and she is more apt to offer them humbly, as suggestions rather than gospel truth. Here they are:
Connect with other people
The new rule here is simple: Any engagement that enriches existing relationships with actual human beings is successful. Any engagement that doesn’t - that replaces human contact - is a failure. In practice, says Kamenetz, that means “lean into video chat and real-time interactions. And play games, watch TV and videos together as a family.”
When it comes to games, pace matters. Probably a lot. Fast-paced games, the data suggests, can interfere with kids’ developing attention spans. Those that contain ads - and research shows 95% of the most popular apps for children do - are even more of a risk, and are frequently both “manipulative” and “disruptive.”
Look for slow media - read-aloud videos, audiobooks and podcasts are ideal.
Sure, they’re technically still “screen-time”- but the impact on children’s mood and attention couldn’t be more different than time spent with first-person shooters or games loaded with addictive bells and whistles.
Reduce and repair
Harm reduction is the watchword here. Be realistic. Sometimes you’ll fail at limiting screen-time. Some days you may need to fail in order to meet a work deadline or attend to another urgent matter.
When that happens - and it is a “when” not an “if” - think about how to handle the fallout from your child’s screen hangover. Extra physical activity, some concentrated quality time at the end of the day, some extra healthy snacks can all help to mitigate the effects.
Focus on feelings (not screens)
“What I’ve come to realize with clarity in these dark, anxious times,” says Kamenetz, “is that so many of our problems ‘with technology’ don’t 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.”
Sure we can rely on screens to numb the pain - but the problem may well be those underlying feelings, not the content we are bingeing on.
“You can fight with your kids about too much screen–time. Or you can smoosh in next to them on the couch and ask, ‘Can I have a hug? Hugging you makes me feel better.’ That’s one thing I do know.”
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