The Deadly Swamp of Screentime


The only time I ever lied to our pediatrician was about screentime.

I wasn’t proud of it at the time; I was just tired. It was during the period after my second child was born, but before I admitted that parenting two children is about a hundred times harder than parenting one. In the midst of the long list of “Are you being a good parent?” questions (Seat belts? Tooth-brushing? Bedtime ritual?) I didn’t have it in me to admit that my toddler not only used a screen sometimes, but that my husband had even introduced him to YouTube.

If you’ve spent any time reading parenting articles on the internet, you already know that screens are, it seems, in the same category as cocaine. They will addict and consume your child. They will induce antisocial and perhaps criminal behavior in your child. They will rot your child's character, attention span, and future net worth. These "facts" are ubiquitous in the news and on parenting blogs.

They're so ubiquitous that I sometimes have trouble remembering to be skeptical. But it's worth reminding myself that I, too, grew up with screens. I can't even guess how much time I spent watching TV and playing video games as a child (more than the current recommended limit, I'm sure). To all appearances, I am now a functional, contributing member of society: I have a Master's degree and a high-paying job, I volunteer with a non-profit, and I parent three children.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about screentime, and I think the key questions that arise are about trust.

Do I trust myself around screens?

Before we talk about children, let's take a moment to think about the form children eventually grow into: adults. I feel that I have some insight into what it's like to be an adult around screens.

As an adult, I have sometimes spent far more time than I should have on screens. Although I haven't had a TV since going to college, I've occasionally binged on video games -- in retrospect I notice that behavior occurred when I was struggling with some other aspect of my life. For similar reasons, I made a brief but intense foray into reading blogs soon after I became a stay-at-home parent. And although I held off on getting a cell phone for nearly ten years after they became common, I eventually succumbed. It took only a few weeks before I noticed in myself the tendency to glance at that screen during any brief moment of downtime.

But none of these behaviors has taken over my life. Each time, once I realized what was happening, I set boundaries to remove the temptation. I simplified my phone and turned off most notifications, and I tried to keep it in my pocket when not actively using it. I made a conscious decision that the blogs I was reading weren't helping me, so I unsubscribed from them and, (for good measure) uninstalled my feedreader. The video games were the hardest, but eventually I uninstalled them as well.

Do I still spend a lot of time in front of a screen? Absolutely -- but rarely for entertainment. That degree I mentioned is in Computer Science, and I'm now a software engineer. I use screens every day to develop software solutions that make others' lives easier; I use them for writing (I'm not writing these words with a pen); and I use them for a wide variety of other tasks (email, listening to audiobooks, sending photos to the grandparents, finding new recipes, etc).

With very rare exceptions, I don't use them for social media, watching TV (I don't care if it's through an online service, it's the same thing), or video games. I don't use screens for these things because I have limited hours in the day, and frankly there are other ways I want to spend my time -- so I make choices, and I trust myself. Other people may make other choices, and trust themselves as well.

To be clear, I don't trust myself not to be tempted. I don't even trust myself not to sometimes succumb to temptation. But I do trust my ability to eventually recognize patterns, realign myself with what I want in life, and choose a better path.

But I am an adult, and while others may not always agree with my choices, it's generally understood that I am capable of making them (or at least legally allowed to do so).

So let's talk about children again.

Do I trust my children around screens?

It's one thing to look at my years of experience around screens, and be satisfied with my current systems. It's another entirely to watch my children making the same mistakes that I (in retrospect) did.

And just to complicate things, screens are almost certainly one of the primary tools my children will use in their careers.

Let's be honest -- most of us, not just programmers, spend significant time in front of a computer. When I hear about parents refusing to allow their children any access to screens, I wonder sometimes if it's equivalent to not allowing your children any access to books a hundred years ago. (By the way, when the printing press made books cheap and easy to produce, some people worried about how easy access to information of this sort would cause the mental and moral degradation of the next generation.) We're amazed and perhaps dismayed at how readily a two-year-old adapts to using a tablet, but that's because she's a little learning machine. It's easy and natural for her to learn at that age. Whether we like it or not, part of what she's soaking up is the skills that will make her competent in adulthood.

But she's also being exposed to the combined, concentrated efforts of marketers and designers to grab and keep her attention.

Screens are captivating. They are easy entertainment. Yes, they can be used for creative and interesting work, but they can even more easily be used for letting large chunks of life flow mindlessly away. I know; I've done it. In the worst case, the positive reinforcement loop can create addiction.

Can I trust my children not to become addicted to screens? To notice their own responses and accept increasing responsibility for their own health? To take seriously conversations about the potential dangers of screens, instead of just being driven by mindless rewards?

Do I trust them to develop these abilities around sugar? Flattery? Sex? Any of the other enjoyable, potentially addictive, harmful-in-excess experiences they'll encounter in life?

Not as young children, certainly. I've seen children around candy (and been one). But as they grow older, this ability to manage themselves is one of the key skills I want them to build. And they can't build any skill without having the chance to try, and to fail.

It isn't about them performing perfectly, just as I don't expect them to read or somersault or add fractions perfectly the first time. It's about growing the skill of managing themselves. I guide them at first by setting boundaries, and I keep a (hopefully unobtrusive) eye on how they're using screens. As they grow, I give them more autonomy, and work with them to help them understand my concerns. But I don't deprive them entirely of this tool, and I don't expect them never to fail. Better to fail in small ways early than in large ways later in life.

Returning to my own ability to manage my screentime, I fundamentally need to decide: Do I believe that I can manage myself because I was trained in certain patterns as a child, or because I am a capable, autonomous person with the power to (eventually) make intelligent choices, even when they're hard?

I trust my children to learn. And I want them to start learning these skills while I'm around to provide a few nudges.

None of this is easy.

It's hard to know how much is too much. If I realize they've been sprawled in front of their screens for hours, it's hard to trust that won't be an indelible pattern for the rest of their lives.

We talk to them about their relationships with their screens, to the extent it makes sense. And we try to make sure they have plenty of other experiences in their lives.

I still struggle with the question of screentime, especially for my youngest. For my oldest child I am no longer much worried. He appears to have mostly left videos of cat ineptitude behind, and now uses his screen largely for projects that are simply cool -- creating his own animations, building Minecraft mods, learning to program. Will he (or has he) watched videos that I would find questionable? Undoubtedly. I know that at his age I'd been exposed to things that would have made my parents uncomfortable.

But I believe that our relationship, grounded in mutual trust and respect, will bias him heavily toward his parents’ values. And I want him to learn the skill of understanding and guiding his own choices, so that he can trust himself.

Holly Allen is a software engineer, parent of three, and co-author with Don Berg of Most Schools Won’t Fit.

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