A parent’s perspective on the online life of kids right now

For years, we have sought to reasonably limit our kids’ screen time at home. They’re 10 and 8, and we maintained weekly schedules for TV days, checking in with them about what they want to watch, keeping video games to a minimum, no phones of their own, letting just a little social media creep in over time for our 10-year old…

Then one day in March, it all turned upside down. Suddenly the kids were always at home, and mandated by their school to engage with multiple Zoom sessions, online apps and/or instructional videos per day. The parental assistance required to help them get into meetings on time (or even at all), keep assignments on track (interpreted, printed, completed, submitted)… was enough to have me gnashing my teeth several times a week.

Around our household, the number of Zoom meetings per week became our own little epidemic. My wife was teaching a full slate of remote classes; soon I joined in, starting my own distance-learning enrichment groups for young students. The irony of this enterprise was obvious to me, and has only grown more acute over time. I voice my fight against my kids’ growing habituation of grabbing for the screen, to which they are always ready to point out, “But you’re on a screen all the time – like right now!” I am left stammering, “But I’ve got work to do!” Yes, it is hard to explain.

Since the pandemic began, our well-laid management plans for screen time and social media use have eroded quite a bit. I’m not going to do much to impede my physically-distanced daughter’s wish/need to spend “face time” with friends. But that quickly morphs into online games and a demand for the latest social account by which apparently important and meaningful stickers and emojis are exchanged. Meanwhile, I actually encourage them to watch more programs on screen… as long as the programs are in French. So we’re trying…

There are, for sure, valuable, positive online activities through which kids can explore and grow skills, knowledge, even critical thinking and emotional intelligence. The difficulty I see is in the fluidity with which a child’s attention naturally moves between these parentally curated efforts and others that carry a danger of increasing social isolation, shallow interactions, self-absorption, and the commercially-driven capture of one’s headspace.  

In our present, challenging context of enforced distancing, I have seen the value of online interaction with a small group of peers under the responsive attention of a trusted adult. A big part of it is about togetherness, the reassurance of belonging. It’s also about setting goals and accomplishing them with, hopefully, more intrinsic motivations than straight-up school assignments. If more screen time is a given, we parents can still steer the ship into that ocean with a demand for the greatest quality of human interaction, conversation, and meaning-making that can be found there.