By Ruth Kogen Goodwin of ruthkgoodwin.com
I’ll admit it. I was a panic shopper. Not for toilet paper, or canned food, or disinfectant. I had enough of that in my pantry and emergency kit. What I didn’t have, what I decided I urgently needed the night that schools closed, was a Chromebook for my first grader.
I never imagined myself there: hair in a disheveled bun, an hour after bedtime, waiting in a snaking checkout line with one item in my cart. After all, I had always prided myself on being a mom who followed American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines: no screen time before 18 months and only significantly time-limited high quality “educational” programming until the age of five. My 7-year-old only had access to a locked down iPad; no phone or laptop or messaging apps. And yet, there I was, staring down an extended quarantine, racing out to get her linked up and online.
As my husband helped me set up the device to get it ready for use on Monday morning, I fretted through all manner of unlikely scenarios. What if she preferred computers and lost her love of reading? What if she became a tech-addled zombie? What if I had made the wrong decision?
Not that I was going to let her use her Chromebook for anything beyond school assignments. No, it was purchased purely for academic work, and we used it only for that purpose. That is, until educators and other professionals began to recommend “academic” school-adjacent websites. A source of enrichment! And then zoos and aquariums and museums began posting short videos of their exhibits. Field trips! And then some of the academic websites gamified their content. Still educational!
And then friends wanted to FaceTime. And then we found Doodles with Mo Willems. And then there was a fun bubble popping game. As you can probably imagine, that slippery slope slid, and slid fast. Before I could gather my wits, we were curled up with popcorn watching Frozen II for the third time in as many days. And honestly? We were perfectly fine.
While much of the advanced technology we rely on today was not around during previous disasters of this scope and magnitude, communication has long been a source of comfort during difficult times. Research shows that during disasters like this one, television viewership typically surges as people use it not only to stay up to date on the news, but for entertainment purposes. It appears that the same is holding true for new media. In recent weeks Vodafone, the world’s second largest mobile operator, has reported that internet usage has swelled by up to 50% in some European countries, and Mark Zuckerberg states that current traffic to Facebook is “well beyond” the rise the company typically registers at any time of year. As we spend more time at home and less time in public communicating face to face, we still continue to find ways to maintain our professional and social commitments and connections. It’s just that most of this has to be done through screens.
In light of this, it isn’t far fetched to think that a rise in “shelter in place,” “safer at home,” and quarantine orders will increase our digital media consumption overall. And if adults are increasing our screen time significantly, doesn’t it make sense that children would too?
Of course, I am not advocating for parking your child in front of a screen all day without human interaction, nor that you allow them to use technology without age-appropriate parent participation. In the case of my 7-year-old, I am still closely monitoring her use. That is what is working for us right now.
And the truth is, she IS watching more Disney+, playing more games, talking to more friends, and sitting face-to-face with a screen more than I’d ever have allowed a mere week ago. Yet, despite all my early fretting, it doesn’t feel like a failure. It feels like joy and connection.
In the past several days, I have witnessed my daughter have a backyard play date with a friend, exchange messages with her teacher, observe sea otter feeding time at the aquarium, play a logic game similar to chess, learn Japanese words with her dad, and yes, watch children’s shows and movies, all with the aid of advanced technology and a screen. I have seen how, especially in this unique time of isolation, screen time isn’t something inherently negative. Instead it can be a source of opportunities for learning, interaction, and play.
Current screen time guidelines (like those from the AAP) are based on the total number of hours that children are exposed to screens. However, evidence suggests that the type of activity performed with these screens matters much more than the amount of time spent. One useful framework is to divide screen time into two categories—active and passive. Australian researchers use these categories to argue that it is mostly passive screen time that can have detrimental effects on children, and that active screen time, with activities that stimulate the brain and body, can be a good thing. And right now, children, just like their adults, are using them to enhance nearly every part of their lives.
Now is not the time for a one-size-fits-all solution to healthy childhood media consumption. Avoiding screen time or limiting it to one hour per day may be completely feasible for some, and impossible to imagine for others. Some children need help with social connection, others need enhanced academic assistance, and still others need to be quietly entertained while their parents do very necessary work. Most will need a unique combination of all three. If screens can help provide this, at least in part, why not let them?
In my house this means I’m not going to let my young child have unfettered and unlimited access to the internet. But if she wants to play one more round of sushi slash before doing her math assignment…why not? It’s perfectly okay to bend the rules right now. Maybe it was perfectly okay to bend them all along.
About the Author
Ruth Kogen Goodwin a writer and editor living in Southern California, and her nonfiction has appeared on Kveller.com and in Hippocampus Magazine, among other publications. Her essay, “The Swing,” was a finalist for the 2017 New Letters Prize for the Essay. She received an MFA in creative writing from American University. You can see more at www.ruthkgoodwin.com.