In the last six weeks, I’ve spoken with educators and parents all over the country, conducting virtual workshops to help parents, teachers and administrators manage this new reality. Even those who are excited about distance learning have understandable concerns about the amount of screen time kids are experiencing these days.
While balancing technology usage with unplugged time is still crucial for mental and physical health, this time at home presents an opportunity for adults to observe the myriad experiences kids are having with tech.
What new awareness, strengths and skills can we pick up that will stay with us? How can children and teenagers teach parents tech skills and tech savvy right now? And what can we learn from this up-close exposure to our kids’ digital world?
Screentime Is Over: New Strategies
Many parents have relied on screen-time limits as a simple and direct way to reduce the harmful effects of technology. Yet now, more than ever, parents should look deeply at the different ways kids use tech—for things like connection, creativity, entertainment and learning.
Not all “screen time” is equivalent. But it is tough for parents who have been socialized to measure the quality of their parenting (and to judge their peers) by the amount of screentime they allow their children to have. Parents who already feel guilty about their own screen time are feeling especially concerned as kids, suddenly grounded from school, athletics, scouting and playdates, are clocking mountains of time on their devices.
With thoughtfulness and intentionality, technology can be a powerful way to support children’s needs during this time. There are three key areas to check in on your kids’ tech use:
Learning: Opening New Horizons
School is now a different experience for kids across the country. Today, the scene looks more like sitting at the dining room table, intently staring at an open Chromebook—possibly elated one moment and desperately frustrated the next. The worksheets and activities that teachers are sending home doesn’t fill the whole day, and schools that have tried requiring full days of synchronous learning are quickly learning that it is exhausting and impossible.
Using technology mindfully and strategically can contribute to kids’ mental, emotional and even physical health—and strengthen our relationships with them too.
Rather, let’s ask our kids: Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn? Is there something we never seem to have enough time to do? Sit down and make a list together, because this will truly depend on your kid’s interests.
I’m not assuming that your kid’s going to say, “I’ve always wanted more time composing music or building models of DNA.” If that's your kid, great! How can you support that? Most might say “I don’t know.” Perhaps “I want more time on my Nintendo Switch” or “more time in Minecraft.” “More time Snapchatting my friends.”
Work together to audit these experiences and understand why they are compelling. Take the opportunity to ask them what they’re learning in these spaces and what they can bring back into the family.
For instance, maybe they learned how to sew protective facemasks on YouTube and could teach the rest of the family how to do it. Or perhaps they learned a dance move on TikTok that they could show off to everyone. Now you’re exercising and enjoying family togetherness. Or perhaps your child is ready to direct the whole family in a video and make the next viral hit. Even if you aren’t, you will have fun collaborating and letting your child be the director at a time when kids may feel bored and restless.
Creativity: Training Focus and Intent
Passive consumption with passive inputs preys on our attention and our mood. What’s worse is that much of the technology we use is actually designed to promote interminable idleness. So how do we keep our children focused and resist the siren call of endless scrolling on social media?
To be honest, most of us struggle with this too. Look to your child’s creativity to break the spell. Ask your kid what they want to make or build or create—for instance, an hour of programming in Scratch, or creating music in GarageBand. This takes passive consumption and turns it into something else—real world experiences, new ideas, and problem-solving.
Urge them to make how-to videos of a skill they’re good at and would like to teach. There is tons of model content on YouTube, from baking demonstrations to home improvement projects. I would love to see my kid creating one of these demos, even if it’s just for the family’s viewing. Or take part in the Rube Goldberg Challenge. Whatever it is, just make something.
Our relationships went from real-world to virtual all at once. For our younger kids who may be less accustomed to navigating social relationships via technology, this is a tough time.
School-aged children who miss their friends but weren’t on social media before are getting a crash course in building relationships via text or social media, often on their parents’ devices.
When younger kids connect digitally for the first time, it may feel awkward or unfamiliar. A Zoom playdate between two eight-year-olds might look like parallel play as they perform for one another, jump off of things, or use all the filters and silly backgrounds they can come up with.
Don’t use adult communication standards to judge these interactions. We should approach our kids’ digital hangouts with an open mind and a reminder about where they are developmentally. What kind of jokes would they normally be swapping during lunch at school in second grade? That’s what you might hear if they talk over Facebook Messenger Kids or Zoom right now.
We are rewriting the rules in real-time. In our family, we green-lighted Discord for my son, even though we both felt it was too early.
Why? It’s communication. He doesn’t have a phone or an easy way to be in contact with his friends. But when he’s gaming, now he can hear their voices. In a world where having other kids over to play was possible (remember February?), we were going to hold off until middle school. But the moment demands that we honor his need to nurture his friendships.
For now, we’re only using this app when adults are around, since it isn’t really designed for 5th graders. But we’re also learning from our son and his friends how Discord can work, and how it is different from other ways of connecting. We would never have spent this kind of time getting this knowledge and perspective under other circumstances.
Self-Regulation Needs Scaffolding
In my household, both parents are working from home full-time, tag-teaming our son with check-ins. Schoolwork on a Chromebook can quickly give way to surfing the web and the dreaded endless scroll.
How much supervision do kids need, and whose job is it to check in? How do we keep kids on task and off of YouTube? If a device also has games installed, how can parents help kids focus?
Separating the function for different devices and having rules against double screening can help. If parents need to make limits, old-school tactics, like hiding the TV clicker or taking a gaming device until school work is completed, can help.
Or, you can also dive in and collaborate with your child to solve the problem. For example, if they are unpleasant, irritable or worse after “too much” tech time, it would help to intersperse outdoor time, breathing exercises or reading a printed book.
Challenges with self-regulation depend on age, maturity level, and how much self-regulation your children have exhibited before. Pick your battles carefully with an eye to your energy and availability. Kids stuck at home are craving autonomy right now, and having the opportunity to make choices can help them deal with the losses and frustration they are experiencing.
The New Normal: The Kids are Leaders
In my work, I’m already hearing from families about their enhanced understanding of the ways kids use tech. This makes us better parents. Let them set up Houseparty for a family birthday, or make a video for a grandparent who is in isolation right now. Our family is playing nightly Boggle via a combination of digital tools: My son’s grandmother shakes the cubes and texts us the pictures, then we set the timer and play on Facetime.
While this is a poor substitute for Shabbat dinner, it is far better than nothing. It is a connection we can look forward to each day.
The altruism and collaboration among kids and adults is also outright inspiring. Kids and families are making PPE face masks. One teen has built a COVID information hub. Others who have recovered from the virus are eager to donate plasma.
There’s a lot to be concerned about as we navigate through this pandemic. But our up-close exposure to our kids’ innate creativity and curiosity should give us a new perspective on their possibilities and potential. Using technology mindfully and strategically can contribute to kids’ mental, emotional and even physical health—and strengthen our relationships with them too.