IIt has been over a year since most kids had a regular schedule involving a full-time school and extracurricular commitment list. In New York, this world of running from place to place, chasing the dream of a smooth transition from school to karate, is booming again. And while the kids wear masks, they also attend in-person sessions, aspiring to skills that they won’t be of much use as adults. It is a relief and a burden; and if it was like that before the pandemic, it’s also different. As much as we run towards something, so much we run away from some of the worst aspects of foreclosure.
I am particularly speaking here of the screens, which for most parents have acted in the last 18 months, in the absence of other arrangements, as babysitters and educators of their children. It’s strange, looking back to March 2020, to remember the thrill of an early lockdown when all activity first stopped. Along with the horror and uncertainty of the onset of the pandemic, there was a sense of liberation for many of us in those early weeks. The children were exhausted, as were we. Having nothing to do and nowhere to go seemed like a fix to an existence that was too programmed and under pressure. And so on on their iPads, they are gone.
Cut at the start of this school year, and Facebook is in Washington DC ahead of a Senate hearing on Internet use and child safety – specifically a panel convened to examine the impact on children’s mental health from the exposure to social media. This follows news from China that Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is limiting the use of its platform to 40 minutes per day for those under the age of 14, and the Chinese government’s action to ban those under the age of 18 from playing video games for more than an hour a day. None of these regulations are particularly applicable, just as TikTok’s “users must be 13 and over” provision is complete nonsense. But the conversation at least catches up with the reality of what too much screen time does to young children.
The missing piece here are adults. At the start of the pandemic, I parked my five-year-olds on iPads for five hours a day to meet a reservation deadline that couldn’t be pushed back. As soon as I could, I threw them both, but the damage was done – not my children, who are still elastic enough to adapt to any new circumstance, but me. The government can step in and public health warnings will help, but the biggest problem with excessive screen addiction is not so much child welfare as it is parental temptation. The knowledge, after a year of forced overuse, that when you have something urgent to do, or you need a break, or you have a meeting to schedule on a day when the kids are at house, you can park them for hours in line, where they won’t fight against each other or surface to ask for anything, it’s almost impossible to resist. Why hire a babysitter to take them outside when you can legally sedate them for free?
Tech companies are of course pushing back negative results from research into user damage. The Senate hearings on Facebook, which also owns Instagram, were sparked by a Wall Street Journal article in September about Facebook’s own research into Instagram’s impact on teenage girls. Headlines focused on leaked documents from Facebook that show how the company has sought internally to downplay and undermine negative findings with many goofy metrics markups. (“Contrary to how the goals were formulated, this research was designed to understand user perceptions and not to provide prevalence measures, statistical estimates for the correlation between Instagram and mental health or to assess claims. causal links between Instagram and health / wellness. ”) And still none of this deals with parental addiction – not the screens themselves, but the cheap and fully efficient babysitting we know, thanks to the pandemic they offer.
As with getting rid of any addiction, distraction helps. Three weeks into the school year and our after school schedule is insane. If my kids come straight home, they inevitably end up on iPads for two hours and are irritated and overwhelmed by bedtime. And so we zigzag through town from school, to dancing, to karate, to an after-school program that keeps them out for two hours and me out of temptation. And while we don’t get home until 7pm, the kids are at least wired with a good clean exhaustion and fall asleep with no problem. It’s ridiculous, exhausting, and not particularly durable. But until I can detox, it’s better than the old digital alternative.