HealthPeople

Screen Time Strikes Back

By Sara Harrison

Instead of worrying about hours on the iPad, parents should make sure they’re managing their own stress levels.

In the before times, Steve Disselhorst had rules. His children, Kaitlyn, 8, and Matthew, 5, couldn’t spend six hours glued to a screen. He also had boundaries. The kids were dropped off at school and daycare by 8:30 a.m., followed by after-school activities. Business meetings weren’t disrupted by questions about Legos or fighting over who has to wear headphones during Zoom calls in his open-plan San Bruno home.

But that was before COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks: before lockdown orders, school closures and face masks became mundane.

Now, like so many other Bay Area families, Steve, Kaitlyn and Matthew are all working from home, balancing two different Zoom class schedules, work calls and family time. “It’s exhausting. The house is completely a disaster every day,” says Disselhorst, consultant, executive coach and author of Determined to Be Dad, which details his experience adopting kids. “It’s just never-ending.”

With class time, homework, educational games and tutoring all happening online or over Zoom, screens, once allowed sparingly in many households, have increased exponentially. During this very unusual time, experts say screens aren’t the enemy. Stress is. In fact, if families use screens to help kids feel a sense of belonging, and to give caregivers a break, screens can actually be a great tool: one that could help everyone thrive, even the youngest learners.

“Children will only do as well as their parents are doing,” says Diana Divecha, a developmental psychologist and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center. If parents are stressed out, she notes, it will affect their kids more than an extra hour in front of the iPad. “I put my kids in front of a screen at 3 years old so that I could get ready for work,” she admits. “You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes.”

The pandemic isn’t the only reason why Bay Area families might resort to extra screen time these days. Sean Martin, who lives with his wife and four children in Mill Valley, says this fall’s wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties often shrouded their home in smoke, making it unhealthy for the family to be outside. “We can’t go to a mall or a movie or whatever,” he says. “We can’t do anything.” Screens felt like a necessary resort.

This Too Shall Pass

Betsy Rate, a parent in Berkeley, worries about how this whole experience will shape her daughter, who started first grade this year. Rate says she’s sad about what her daughter is missing and fearful about how this experience will shape her life and her attitudes toward school. “How long is this going to go on?” Rate wrote via email. “How long CAN it go on before … there’s significant learning loss? Before she decides to hate school forever? Before I decide it’s not sustainable for anyone and quit my job to homeschool or who knows what?”

Illustration: Donna Grethen

Early data from a landmark study started by the National Institutes of Health in 2018 does show that kids who spent more than two hours a day on screens had lower scores on critical thinking and language tests. The data also showed that kids who spent more than seven hours every day on a screen had thinning in the brain cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and critical thinking.

But Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, and president and founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, is quick to remind parents that while the pandemic may feel endless, this is a temporary situation. Those younger learners will have plenty of time to catch up on what’s gotten lost in digital translation. “We don’t really have any evidence that if you don’t get it at 4 you can’t get it at 5 and a half,” says Homayoun.

In the Disselhorst home, Matthew and Kaitlyn have mostly adjusted to their new routines. At 8:30, the kids settle into their spots — Kaitlyn with her computer at a small desk in the kitchen decorated with quotes from Katharine Hepburn and William Shakespeare, and Matthew with an iPad at the dining room table. Before, they needed a parent to do the login and get them set up, but now they’re more self-sufficient. “They know frickin’ Zoom better than I do,” says Disselhorst. “They’re unbelievable.”

Matthew, who started transitional kindergarten this year, still needs plenty of help remembering when it’s time for him to sign on for smaller group activities or for check-ins with his teacher, and Kaitlyn misses seeing her friends. Without all of the beginning of the school year rituals, she wasn’t as excited to start this fall.

But Disselhorst says there are lots of positives about the current situation that his kids enjoy: They love the family stability and spending more time with their parents. They’re also bonding and playing together more than they ever did before.

Take a Break (or Several)

In fact, the people hit hardest by Zoom schooling aren’t kids. They’re parents. Disselhorst’s business took a hit when the pandemic started, but in some ways, he sees that as a blessing. “If I were busier, there’s no way I could be doing it all,” he says. Sometimes Matthew misses a class because schedules get confused. At other times, Disselhorst will get frustrated and explode when the kids are disruptive or arguing.

When he talks with other parents, they all share fears that they’re disappointing everybody — from their co-workers and bosses to their kids and partners. “Everyone feels like they’re just failing,” he says.

Illustration: Donna Grethen

Rate says this new normal has forced her to take on a supervisory role she and her daughter dislike. “It’s nice to spend the extra time together, but on the other hand it’s stressful. She doesn’t want to be supervised by me … so it’s added a tension,” she writes. “And you know when I’m not supervising her, I’m trying to work, so that time that would have gone to playing is gone.”

Recent studies by the American Psychological Association and Harvard University found that stress levels for parents of young children have skyrocketed. A survey by the University of Oregon found that 63 percent of parents felt they had lost emotional support during the pandemic.

Homayoun says parents need to give themselves a break. They can’t be playmates, chefs, teachers and parents for their children. “There are positive ways of using screen time to build a sense of connection and belonging, and that can also help reduce parental stress because they are no longer the be-all and end-all for their child,” says Homayoun.

Maybe that’s finding a grandparent to read a story every day over Zoom, or a friend to do an art project one afternoon a week. In the Disselhorst home, surrounded by two dads and a brother, Kaitlyn is “craving female energy like there’s no tomorrow,” says Disselhorst, so he tapped his sister and nieces to check in every week and give her some girl time.

Above all, Homayoun suggests that parents give kids a little grace and not get worried when things don’t go according to plan. “Not every day is going to be perfect and some days you’re probably going to want to take a day off,” she says. “And that might be OK.”

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