The past year has been unprecedented (I know, I know…that word!), as has our teens’ screen time. For interest’s sake, I just pulled up my calendar from this week, 2020. There is barely an empty hour between competition jazz band commitments, religious school, music and sports lessons, high school extra-curriculars, and get-togethers with friends. I see virtually no blank space on our family calendar – and my kids have never been as “programmed” as their peers! With so little free time (once you add in schoolwork, which both my kids take seriously), screen time was not a huge issue in our house. The kids texted with friends, followed some Instagram accounts, and my son played an hour of video games per day on weekends only.
Fast forward to COVID times. How many times have YOU said to your kids – “Get off your screens” or “Can’t you find anything else to do that does not involve in a screen?” It sure feels like a problem – so I turned to my screens and asked fellow parents of teens whether they are struggling with screens in their homes too. I also asked what their teens are keeping busy with that does not involve an electronic device. Here are some take-aways:
-We are all in this together – “All screens. All the time,” “Screens, all the time,” “Definitely a lot of screen time.” Basically, every parent who I heard from admitted to way too much screen time in their homes.
-Sports have been helpful – in some areas, organized sports have continued throughout COVID. Parents remarked that team sports and individual lessons in sports like tennis have been a godsend for their kids. Although we have been extremely cautious throughout the pandemic, we did allow our son to play Little League baseball this summer and it truly was a blessing. He got to be with other boys, got a lot of fresh air and exercise, and felt some of the team spirit he usually experiences at his beloved overnight camp. Parents also wrote about how their kids have embraced the family exercise equipment. My daughter has been joining me for Peloton yoga classes and we are loving the together time and the laughs when we can’t quite master the poses!
-Weather is a factor – Parents remarked that their kids were much better at getting outside for exercise and socially distant visits with friends when the weather was warmer and there was no snow or ice on the ground. So many friends invested in firepits and heaters before the winter – but when it is 10 degrees outside, no teenager is going to sit in the backyard! Bad weather = more screen time. For all of us.
-Kids have adjusted to doing all sorts of things online – in my house, we do online trumpet lessons, clarinet lessons, and piano lessons. I have learned to knit online with my best friend in Canada. Of course, many, many kids are doing therapy online (I’ve never been busier). Things that seemed impossible before COVID seem pretty normal now. Yes, I recognize that these online activities technically involve a screen, but if it means kids are learning and growing, we will have to accept it for now.
-Crafts can be cool – one mom wrote that she is taking 2-3 trips to craft stores per month. Many parents wrote about their kids drawing, painting, knitting, crocheting, baking and cooking. I do have to say these interests seemed to trend slightly to the tween/early teen age group as opposed to high school kids. One of my college age students knits and crochets the COOLEST clothes and bags – I feel like if my daughter and her friends could see her stuff, they would all want to pick up knitting. But if I suggest it – no way.
-Pets – many people have acquired pandemic puppies and these too have been very helpful for kids. They get kids outside and exercising and are of course good for mental health and for learning responsibility. Don’t have your own pet? Maybe your child can help out walking a neighbor’s dog!
-Reading – some parents wrote that they have kids who are naturally avid readers and these kids have loved the gift of reading time that COVID has afforded.
To summarize – the good news is that our kids have kept up with old hobbies and interests and have developed some new ones despite COVID. The bad news – there is an awful lot of aimless screen time, and a lot of the activities described above actually still involve screens.
SO, SHOULD WE BE WORRIED?
As a psychologist, I encourage you to ask yourselves this –
What is the function of the screen time?
Some positive functions –
-Social time – if your kid is on Facetime with friends, playing video games with other kids, or watching silly videos with a friend, remind yourself – this is all they’ve got right now. Particularly in the winter, it is really hard to get together in any meaningful way. For kids who are in school, social time is very limited. Generally, kids cannot choose who to eat lunch with and during lunch cannot even face a peer and talk while they eat. Kids are telling me that school leaves them feeling really empty. They need to fill their tank somehow.
-Learning – Obviously, our kids are going to be on screens for school and for completing schoolwork. During these odd times, we also have to accept that they will be on screens to take their music and dance lessons, do some of their sports coaching, watch videos about crafts and baking, and so on. At these times where kids are having so few shared experiences, it is also important for kids to have things to connect about – and this might be the latest sports scores or the newest Netflix series. For kids who are watching a lot of sports or shows/movies, suggest they get on Facetime and watch with a friend or watch a really interesting series and virtually meet to discuss each episode with friends (like a book club – but for TV!)
-A healthy escape – This year has been a nightmare between COVID, political and social unrest, and for many kids, losing loved ones, economic security, etc. Think about what YOU do at the end of a hard day. Most people turn on the TV and zone out. Let your kids do that too. Not for hours, but do remember that they need a brain break too.
And the not so positive –
-Escape from aversive feelings – If your child is spending hours on screens, to the exclusion of COVID-safe social time, other hobbies, spending time with family, etc., it is worth asking if they are using screens to escape from aversive feelings of anxiety and sadness. Screen time would likely not be the only sign of a problem. Has your child’s eating or sleep habits changed? Do they seem particularly critical of themselves or more worried than usual? Have they lost interest in things they used to like and that they still could do during COVID? If you are seeing some of these changes with increased screen time, check in with your child. If you are concerned about their mental health, speak to your pediatrician or school counselor.
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.