2020 might be over, but we’re still in the middle of a pandemic that has changed how we live. As the US surpasses a grim milestone of 400,000 dead from COVID-19, it remains unwise to gather in groups, especially indoors, forcing people, and their kids, to stay in isolation until a vaccine is more widely available.
You probably don’t need to be reminded of this. Perhaps you’ve come to terms with the prospect of a quiet winter and the hours (and hours) of screen time you and your family will require to get through it. So why does the New York Times have to be reminded of it?
A Jan. 16 piece—Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers—has received a fair bit of attention. It accepts that the pandemic is still occurring. It admits that we’re living through extraordinary and difficult times. And yet it opens with this lede:
The day after New Year’s, John Reichert of Boulder, Colo., had a heated argument with his 14-year-old son, James. “I’ve failed you as a father,” he told the boy despairingly.
It sets quite the stage, with the image of a father worried about how much time his son is spending on his Xbox and smartphone. The article then quotes researchers, discusses studies, and profiles other concerned parents. There’s some interesting information there, beyond the obvious screen-time statistics. But the article ends with this statement, which is a textbook example of burying the lede:
Before the pandemic, James had so many options, she said, adding: Now, “it makes me feel badly when I try to restrict him. It’s his only socialization.”
It’s his only socialization. That’s the fundamental issue here. Spending too much time playing games and browsing social media is a problem, no matter your age. But in 2020/2021, a global pandemic has made in-person gatherings unsafe and disrupted our day-to-day lives, sending us to our phones and consoles for entertainment. What else are we going to do?
And this is where I commit my own sin of burying the lede. I agree with some parts of the article; the concerns these parents have are valid. The problem is how the Times frames it. The print headline—Parents Fret as Screen Time Stretches to Months—is even more alarming than the web version. No one wants their child to become a slack-jawed zombie, staring blankly at a screen.
But video games and social media are portrayed as fundamentally negative forces, pandemic or not. Look at the studies the article quotes. According to Addictive Behavior Reports, German teens are playing video games much more than before COVID lockdowns:
It reported that German teens are playing video games with much greater frequency than before lockdown and concluded “that overuse of digital technologies represents a likely phenomenon and outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
And from Qustodio, a parental control software company that tracks kids’ screen time:
Over all, children’s screen time had doubled by May as compared with the same period in the year prior . . . The company calls the month-by-month increase “The Covid Effect.”
This is all noteworthy. But the negative effects of technology are speculated upon with a mishmash of quoted experts and studies, none of which provide a definitive answer about the long-term effects of these activities or offer positive alternatives.
The best contextualization of this increased screen time in the face of the pandemic is provided by Stanford psychology professor Dr. Keith Humphreys, who says there will likely be a period of withdrawal when things “return to normal.” He very reasonably notes that trying to reduce screen time during the pandemic is unrealistic:
[C]hildren now associate their devices with multiple forms of pleasure, and so, disconnecting them during the pandemic has been like “trying to preach abstinence in a bar.”
That clarification from Dr. Humphreys comes 16 paragraphs in, though. Sensationalism and scaremongering are front and center; context comes later. Ultimately, the reader is left with just as many questions as they had coming into the story. The reality of what is happening is established. The effects of what is happening are speculated upon but unknown. The alternatives to what is happening are nowhere to be found.
There are reasonable concerns with kids playing video games and using social media to excess, but anxiety journalism promotes fear to attract readers while doing little to help them. There are ways to survive the stress and boredom of a pandemic without feeling as if you’re failing as a parent. Give yourself a break, and if you’re looking for a lifeline, check out our 10 Simple Tips to Help Manage Kids’ Screen Time.