It’s summertime, and if you have a kid, you have to fill their time with something. Your first thought is probably to stick an iPad or Kindle in front of them because you can’t sing along to “Shake It Off” one more time without murdering someone—but the trouble is, the long arm of screen addiction is robbing our children of basic social functions. Time for a backup plan.
Over at the NYT Well blog, health reporter Jane E. Brody warns about the ways that screen time is taking its toll on our children. She writes:
While Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development. And it starts early, often with preverbal toddlers handed their parents’ cellphones and tablets to entertain themselves when they should be observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.
“Should be” is right! Should be is a noble, lofty goal, the stuff of every parent’s greatest ambitions for her child. Your kid should be sleeping 13 hours a night. Your kid should be walking by age 1. Your kid should be eating broccoli already, not Gummy Bunnies. Your kid should be not still so into your boobs still when she hasn’t nursed for three years but insists on pinching your nipples at least once a day and saying “milk bottle milk bottle.”
“Should be” is also every parent’s basic nightmare. The way we talk about parenting is a little bit fucked, because it lives in two extremes—the theoretical world we all know we should inhabit, and the real world with this kid you had, who is being pretty much how they are, doing the stuff they do that everybody else does, which is stuff we only have so much time and energy to be out in front of, stuff we only have so much power to rein back in once the wrong course is ahead.
There’s should be, and then there’s every day. That’s the truth of this world, the one none of us can really escape. Speaking of escape, though, kids and teens have been escaping into anything they can get their hands on for as long as hands have existed. I spent huge portions of my childhood glued to television watching whatever was on: Days of Our Lives, He-Man, MTV, Roseanne, or playing Legend of Zelda or Tetris bleary-eyed into the night, mainlining sugar, with virtually no supervision.
Here is where you expect me to say “And I turned out just fine,” like approximately one million nostalgic defenses of the free-range childhoods of yore. But I’m not going to say that. I certainly survived and even thrived, eventually, once I stopped escaping so much, but it wasn’t a particularly ideal way to experience the world, all told. I could’ve learned to play chess, or learned another language, or volunteered at a soup kitchen. Instead I saw The Exorcist at age 7.
To be clear, my childhood also included all the classic stuff we all romanticize, too, like playing outside all day during the summer until either someone tried to kidnap us or the cops were called because they saw us breaking into something. And what I “lost” in TV time, I made up for eventually by being into books, good movies, and art—but I highly doubt that any of that made me any more socially adept.
One thing that hasn’t changed, fascinatingly, between my generation and my daughter’s, is the fact that today—despite the influx of new devices—the majority of screen time for kids nowadays is still mostly experienced via television. Brody:
In its 2013 policy statement on “Children, Adolescents, and the Media,” the American Academy of Pediatrics cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but computers, tablets and cellphones are gradually taking over.
The effects on children, Brody notes, range from their school work and grades suffering, to their social skills being hampered, to them becoming immune to violence, to them behaving less empathetically, to some of them sounding like this kid:
In preparing an honors thesis at the University of Rhode Island, Kristina E. Hatch asked children about their favorite video games. A fourth-grader cited “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” because “there’s zombies in it, and you get to kill them with guns and there’s violence … I like blood and violence.”
The problem is, Brody notes, that most parents don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with so much screen time, so they don’t set firm rules for limiting it. How it should be, Brody says, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- No electronic media before age 2
- For older children and teens, no more than two hours a day of entertainment media, preferably “high quality”
For the record, it’s pretty easy to not give a baby an iPhone because she can’t even hold it, which means you’re still having to do all the work of occupying the baby, which is the opposite of the reason you give a kid a phone in the first place.
But keeping an older kid, even at age 5, off cartoons or media down to two hours a day? That’s no easy feat. Cartoons in the morning easily reach a half hour or hour before you notice. And then you find yourself in another danger zone after dinner but before bedtime, when you’re often unwinding from the day or dealing with the bureaucracy of your life and too tired or busy to engage closely with your kid.
Plus, that shit is portable now. Ostensibly you could just let your kid be in front of a device during transportation time or in-transit downtime, and suddenly they’ve watched six hours of garbage and you haven’t even gotten home yet.
It’s particularly difficult asking adults to monitor this stuff objectively when every adult in existence is likely tied round the clock to their phone, either for work or their own weird need to never interact with another person. It’s like asking a crack addict to judiciously measure out some crack for so much as one other person. And add to this the fact that we live in a “golden age of television,” where Game of Thrones is often considered “high quality” media and I have to say I no longer trust anyone’s definition of anything, or anyone’s rules.
But just because we’re all essentially ruined doesn’t mean we can’t stem the tide a smidge. This thinking has deep Puritanical roots and beyond, whether it’s the saying that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, or that awesome bumper sticker: “Jesus is Coming: Look Busy.” That’s really the only solution, isn’t it? You’ve got to get your kids busy doing anything else. Preschoolers and elementary school aged children are still more malleable and easy to control, so I will focus on older kids and teens in these tips. Options should be thought of in a few basic categories:
This includes hiking trips, vacations to natural wonders, and taking a kid’s phone and shoving him out the door and locking it behind him. The benefits include “improved concentration, a greater ability to engage in creative play,” and thinking skills like “greater mental acuity” or a “healthy interior life.”
One word: LARPing. Get them some of that “live” action they are missing out on while also teaching them about history in what is probably a grossly distorted, but fun, way. Also: Swimming pools are places where teenagers can physically exert themselves over the summer while also learning about cliques, making out, pranksters, assholes, and how to do a killer cannonball. If skating rinks are still in existence, I recommend them if for no other reason than getting your kids well-acquainted with pop music and the much lauded suicide soda.
I watched a boatload of television growing up, but I also spent many summers performing forced labor for old people, including refinishing hardwood floors, cleaning out old barns, picking green beans, shucking corn, canning tomatoes, painting houses, picking up trash, and other utterly tedious activities that made me a better person (I guess). You know someone who needs some free labor, and you have a kid. What’s that? That is the sound of smug superiority and future college application padding.
Intellectually Rigorous Activities
All people should be taught chess. But also: Brody cites a study that found that kids who spend too much time one their phones are more likely to argue with peers and teachers, so I say put those arguing skills to use by hosting a weekly debate night with friends or other families with topics relevant to kids and teens. Also, just good old fashioned arguing around the house will do in a pinch. Debate current events! Or historical ones! Debate your son’s favorite shoes or your daughter’s taste in haircuts. I relish the prospect of arguing with my daughter when she’s a teenager if for no other reason than it will make me an even better arguer. (Famous last words.)
Be the Screen
Finally, if all else fails, you must actually engage with your child and find it in yourself to truly parent them. Talk, get to know them, do things together, try to understand them, and dig deep to impart anything that resembles love, knowledge, values, or wisdom to them. Of course, if all you do is play Candy Crush and watch GoT, this might be a challenge. But if that’s the case, think back to before you knew about television, when the world was still a place worth being in, when you dreamed of something other than lining up similarly colored pieces of candy in a row, and be the screen you wish to see in front of your child’s face.
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Illustration by Tara Jacoby