I can tell you the exact moment my wife and I threw out any semblance of screen time rules for our two young children.
It wasn’t in the middle of some lengthy conference call or at the end of a particularly tough workday, but rather at the beginning of a recent weekend. The kids had started the day on their tablets, and instead of cutting them off after the usual hour or two, we simply let their binge-watching sessions continue. My wife slept in, I played some video games, and then we took care of some things around the house until everyone reconvened in the afternoon for lunch. I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit how nice this was.
Even after reading story upon story about how we’ve all relaxed our screen time limits during the coronavirus lockdown, describing the specifics of our new weekend routine still feels a bit shameful. While experts seem to agree that these are extraordinary times, you don’t really see them advocating for four-hour marathon sessions of Rainbow Rangers or Wild Kratts.
Instead, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics cheerily point out that Zoom calls with classmates or family members don’t count toward screen time limits, or they encourage using digital devices for creative endeavors, such as coding or learning to draw. It’s easy to feel guilty about those suggestions when your kids are just zoning out to their favorite shows.
Even in the best of circumstances, being with your kids 24-7 can feel like a lot.
This is a good time to acknowledge that we’re in a fortunate and privileged position. My wife and I are working at home, and our employers and clients (including Fast Company) have been understanding. While we’ve had a predictable number of family blowups, everyone’s healthy and our children have shown remarkable resilience. They miss their friends, teachers, and extended family, but they’re mostly acting like their usual happy selves. I don’t feel like we’re just barely hanging on.
But even in the best of circumstances, being with your kids 24-7 can feel like a lot. There’s only so much schooling you can conduct, running around you can do, fights you can adjudicate, and whining you can endure before you just want to tune out for a while.
What my wife and I have found is that those breaks are important, even (or perhaps especially) during nonwork hours. Bad as that might sound, taking some time to recharge—and not beating ourselves up over it—has left more energy for actual family time.
Of course, it’s possible that I’m just deluding myself and making excuses for bad parenting. But when I asked a couple of experts about letting our kids watch TV for hours on end during lockdown, I was relieved not to get any blowback.
“Parents need to think about mental health too, and if that’s going to take some of the pressure off of you in this highly unusual, very difficult situation, I think that’s really understandable,” says Nusheen Ameenuddin, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media.
Ameenuddin, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Mayo Clinic, stresses that the AAP’s guidelines haven’t changed during the pandemic. The group still says children between the ages of two and five should only have an hour of screen time per day, because the lack of back-and-forth interaction on devices can inhibit speech development. While the AAP doesn’t suggest strict limits for older children, it has found links to obesity among kids who spend more than a couple hours on screens per day.
Still, the AAP understands that families need flexibility right now. While parents should still have some rules in their heads—and should still try to avoid screen time right before bed—Ameenuddin says sticking to the rules is less important than ensuring everyone’s well-being.
“The key is to let parents know that it’s about priorities, and survival is the number one priority—physical health and mental health—and then everything else is just going to have to be juggled,” she says. “Some days, minimizing screen time is going to be a priority. Other days, it’s just not.”
Nusheen Ameenuddin, AAP
Some days, minimizing screen time is going to be a priority. Other days, it’s just not.”
Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow at Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, takes an even more liberal view toward device use.
Shapiro says screen time isn’t inherently bad—he’s not even a fan of the phrase—and notes that some digital activities can have benefits, such as developing social skills during online games. But he also doesn’t poo-poo the notion of younger children just watching TV, even for long stretches.
“In most cases, I think almost all the worries about screen time are blown out of proportion,” he says.
The important thing is that the TV time doesn’t sap children’s interests in other activities, such as socializing, drawing, playing with toys, or being outside. Instead of enforcing strict time limits, he says, parents should make sure they’re still encouraging those other interests.
“My kids have always hung out with their friends, always wanted to go outside and ride their bikes, always gotten A’s in school,” he says. “So if they want to spend eight hours on a screen, and they still do all those other things that I care about, why would I have a limit?”
Time to recharge
While our approach to screen time was never strict to begin with, adding some extra TV time has helped a lot with the other types of activities Shapiro says parents should encourage.
So if they want to spend eight hours on a screen, and they still do all those other things that I care about, why would I have a limit?”
After letting our kids binge-watch their shows on that recent Saturday, for instance, we were all pretty excited to spend some quality time with one another. We had a big lunch, then ventured into the woods behind our house for a hike that lasted until close to dinnertime. It felt great to get outside, and the kids didn’t complain once.
On other days, they’ve been learning to roller-skate and ride bikes, and my son’s out-of-nowhere obsession with NFL highlights on YouTube has translated into a love of throwing the football around. I’ve even started playing guitar for them before bed, which hadn’t occurred to me during normal times when we were just rushing to get the kids asleep at a reasonable hour.
Granted, bumping up the kids’ allotted TV time isn’t the only reason we’re engaging in all those other activities, but it does help lengthen our fuses while doing so. Part of me just feels more motivated for family activity after we’ve all spent some time to ourselves.
Shapiro says that kind of motivation can rub off on the kids as well, even after an entire morning of being transfixed by their screens.
“You’ve set the priorities, you’re showing an image of what it means to be a responsible adult, and that gets mimicked,” he says.