Many of us were already concerned before the coronavirus pandemic about the amount of time we, and our children, spend staring at screens. Now, screen-time seems unavoidable. Coping with the pandemic likely means more screen-time for us and our children. How do we manage this new normal?
It helps to approach technology with healthy skepticism — especially free apps and social media. Tech companies that generate “free products” make money somehow. Our time, our attention and our personal information are repeatedly sold to the highest bidders. Advertisers are the real customers and, unfortunately, we and our children are the products being sold to them.
Many of these platforms use sophisticated machine-learning algorithms and social coordination to persuade us to spend more and more time with them, because our time translates to their money. If you or your child have ever logged on to TikTok, YouTube or Instagram for one thing and awakened 20 minutes (or two hours) later in a daze, then you’ve experienced what we’re describing.
Unfortunately, these systems don’t “care” what they’re showing us. Their job is to use billions of data points to figure out what “works” at keeping us on the screen, regardless of the effects on our mental health, focus or relationships.
We believe that tech companies need to be more responsible. In the meantime, though, we can make our, and our children’s, screen-time more valuable and mitigate some of the risks. Below are a few tips for parents in the time of coronavirus.
First, try to use technology in a deliberate and intentional way yourself: Unless we’re intentional about how we spend our time online, tech will take the reins for us. Tech companies are great at engineering systems that keep us glued to our devices, and it’s easy to get sucked in without meaning to. So, as you reach for your phone, ask yourself why. Is this something I really want to do? Maybe I’m gaining convenience, or distraction, but what am I losing? Is the trade-off worth it? Am I connecting with people I care about? Is what I’m doing making our family life better? Is using tech now depriving me or my children of other important experiences?
When adults use tech intentionally, children learn to do so as well. To help kids think of tech as a tool and not as an end unto itself, try sharing your reasons for picking up your phone. You can make comments like “I’m checking the weather to see if we can go outside,” “I’m on my computer a lot today to do my job, which is how our family puts food on the table,” “I’m checking to see if this text is from your grandmother,” or even “I need to unwind and take a break, but I’ll put it down in an hour.”
“Babies and young children learn best when they use all of their senses, which makes tech time less useful for them than for teenagers.”
Of course, it’s hard to use tech intentionally all the time — so when you do succumb to mindless scrolling, acknowledge what’s happening, both to yourself and your children. It sets a good example of honest self-awareness and lets your kids know that you know how hard it can be to resist the rabbit hole.
Second, be skeptical: Remember that many tech products try to get us hooked on sharing information about ourselves. Remind yourself and your children that companies make billions by analyzing our data and behaviors with powerful supercomputers, and then selling those insights to advertisers. Help your kids notice the addictive techniques that apps use. Here are tools to help with this.
Third, protect developing brains: Managing our own stress is an important part of parenting during a pandemic. Sometimes that means allowing our children more screen-time than usual. But it’s important to remember that children’s brains are growing and developing, and that experiences they have and don’t have actually shape the structure of developing brains. How they spend their time is important.
Babies and young children learn best when they use all of their senses, which makes tech time less useful for them than for teenagers. Instead, the littlest learners need time for actively exploring the world, and for hands-on and active play. As kids get older, we can help them find commercial-free content that connects them with friends, encourages their creativity or helps them learn new skills. It’s important to remember that all of us, including our children, need time away from tech to daydream, to get out in nature if we can, to exercise and to be present to whatever is around us.
Anxiety levels are high, and these are hard times. So please be gentle with yourselves. We hope the tools we suggest will help technology be more of a tool that relieves stress in your life instead of a time-sink that creates more stress.
This story about intentional screen-time for young people and adults alike was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.