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I used to despise screen time. Now I recognize it’s key to my kids’ well-being.
It was so 2018 of me.
Sitting in one of those uncomfortable media center chairs — the kind still relevant in any John Hughes coming-of-age movie — I pumped myself up for a school board meeting to express my thoughts on something that seemed super serious at the time: screen time in the classroom.
I was concerned that my daughter was often using her school-issued device to write with during the school day, instead of pencil and paper, and so I decided to voice my concern to the community at large.
I think I’ve blocked out most of what I said that evening since it’s so irrelevant to my current pandemic existence. But I definitely said something about being a writer and how writing on paper seemed like the best way for our children to begin their academic writing career.
Of course, as I sat under the glare of those fluorescent lights, there was no way for me to know just how invaluable that online experience in the classroom would eventually be.
Back then, my kids certainly weren’t getting digital experience at home. My children don’t have personal computers.
When my kids were preschoolers and our family iPad died, we made a point to never replace it due to the turmoil it caused in our house. In a nutshell, there were too many tech-induced temper tantrums and fights over who got to go online.
But, even with that school-sanctioned iPad and computer experience they received through primary school, when Corona-chaos hit our household, we were NOT ready.
Helping my daughters — who are in first and fourth grades — with their distance learning assignments online often devolved into a four-alarm fire. It began with whining, then crying, me subsequently screaming, and then cursing.
Yep, they learned a lot of new vocabulary from me last semester, and I’m not super proud of it. But I learned a lot of important things, too.
“NOT A TEACHER.” I learned that these are words that could accurately appear on my tombstone.
And those school-issued Chromebooks that I raised a stink about at the school board meeting? They are not the devil as I previously thought. They have been welcomed into our home now and are actually critical to our survival during this pandemic — academically and socially.
For the record, I should be clear that distance learning wasn’t all storm clouds and meltdowns. Their teachers shared online tools with us that made learning more fun and interactive, some that will definitely stick around long after this crisis is over.
We were introduced to some awesome reading websites/apps like GetEpic.com, HooplaDigital.com and Raz-Kids.com that challenged the kids to consume more books and also suggested books they wouldn’t typically pick for themselves.
I know we’re not alone in praising social media apps like Facebook Messenger that were key in helping my daughters connect with all of the friends they missed so much.
There was a daily Google Meet for my daughter’s fourth grade class that was consistently engaging, thanks to fun, teacher-created events like a talent show day, show and tell, and more.
My youngest daughter adored her weekly one-on-one virtual meetings with her first grade teacher, a huge change from non-pandemic school where interruptions in the classroom were common during one-on-one time.
Sure, if left to their own devices (no pun intended) my kids will still get tunnel vision and ultimately end up going somewhere non-educational on said device — in my daughters’ cases, we’re talking places like Amazon.com or TheAmericanGirlStore.com.
I am well aware of and very cautious about the speed at which devices have crept back into our lives.
I’ve installed the Google Family Link monitoring app, which tells me where they’re going when I’m working and not able to look over their shoulder. I’ve also talked with them about some of the dangers they face online.
While my feelings about tech have shifted, I still get anxious about what it’s doing to their developing brains and how to manage their use — because when remote learning ends, we hopefully won’t be signing on as much.
I asked experts for some advice and insight moving forward as we hybrid learn this year (2 days in school, 3 days learning remotely at home), and I was surprised to find out that the virus has changed so much more than our lifestyles; it’s changed the overarching guidance on tech use.
“In the pre-pandemic world, more than 2 hours a day was considered too much time where screens and devices were concerned,” said psychologist/psychoanalyst and author Stephanie Newman, PhD. “Now, that school and extracurriculars have moved online, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests balancing screen time with other activities including physical exercise and making sure children get adequate sleep.”
The AAP realizes that online learning could take up to 7 hours a day so now recommendations to limit use of devices and screens refer to time beyond school, Newman noted.
“Bottom line: The rules about screen time have gone out the window during the pandemic. But most doctors and health officials agree that it’s important to vary a child’s schedules and activities,” she added.
“If kids are spending 6 to 7 hours online for school, parents should be sure to mix it up, make sure they incorporate physical exercise into the routine as well as reading and off-screen games that stimulate children’s imaginations.”
Parents should form a routine of not just learning activities, said psychologist and licensed professional counselor Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, but of play, social, and physical activities.
“By setting up a clear schedule with what is expected and when with clear time limits, kids won’t give parents such push back about their devices,” she told Healthline. “The key is to walk through and test out alternative activities they can do. Otherwise you will hear, ‘I am bored!’ ‘Can’t I just play Minecraft?!’ because they won’t know what to do.”
Without clear limits and expectations about device time limits, Capanna-Hodge added, it invites friction on both sides.
Capanna-Hodge stressed the importance of not expecting kids to sit and do schoolwork for a lengthy 6 hours without a break and not expecting them to decide how to spend their non-device time without a little shepherding.
I’m planning on implementing a schedule this school year listing activities that are appropriate for them to do when they’re not actually learning so they don’t even have to think about it.
The experts said obesity, interruption of sleep, and mental health concerns are some of the dangers associated with too much technology. These will continue to be challenges we face, but Capanna-Hodge shared some good news, too.
“Recent research suggests that not all active screen time impacts children in the same way, and it isn’t always bad,” she told Healthline. “The more actively engaged children and teens are with their screen time activities (hopping on a server to play a game, chatting with friends, FaceTime, etc.) versus passive engagement (think scrolling and YouTube), then the less the negative impact on their mental health.”
What parents need to think about right now, she said, is that their children’s devices are an important vehicle for them to connect socially, which has certainly become the case in my house.
I, for one, feel more connected with the world at large after frequent Zoom calls with distant family and friends.
My eldest daughter kept busy this summer with a bracelet-making video call she created where she and her friends (adorably) weave friendship bracelets, talk about how they’re spending their days, and often lament over how much they miss each other.
Sometimes it’s a heartbreaker to listen in on, but I’m so glad they have that time together — a connection that I likely wouldn’t have thought of a year or two ago. Change, as they say, can be good.
Amy Jamieson is a health, parenting, celebrity, and lifestyle writer, who began her career at People magazine as a reporter in 2000. Later, as a senior editor, she launched People.com’s pet section. Since leaving the brand in 2017, she’s been busy mommin’ and writin’ for various websites like Powder.com and Bustle.com from her saltbox-style home in Connecticut — usually with a cat in her lap and a dog at her feet.