It has been more than a year since most kids had a regular schedule entailing full-time school and a slate of extracurricular commitments. In New York, that world of running from one venue to another, pursuing the dream of a seamless transition from school to karate, is in full flow again. And while the kids are in masks, they’re also attending in-person sessions, hoovering up skills they’ll have no great use for as adults. It’s a relief and a burden; and if it was like this before the pandemic, it’s also different. As much as we’re running towards something, we’re also running away from some of the worst aspects of lockdown.
I’m talking particularly here about screens, which for most parents have acted in the past 18 months, in the absence of other provisions, as babysitters and educators to their kids. It is strange, looking back to March 2020, to remember the thrill of early lockdown when all activity first ground to a halt. Along with the horror and uncertainty of the early pandemic, there was for many of us in those first few weeks a sense of release. The kids were exhausted, as were we. Having nothing to do and nowhere to go seemed like a corrective to an overscheduled, overpressurised existence. And so on to their iPads they went.
Cut to the start of this school year, and Facebook is in Washington DC before a Senate hearing on internet use and child safety – specifically a panel convened to examine the impact on children’s mental health of exposure to social media. It follows on from news from China that Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is limiting use of its platform to 40 minutes a day for under-14s, and action by the Chinese government to ban under-18s from playing video games for more than an hour a day. None of this regulation is particularly enforceable, just as TikTok’s “users must be 13 and older” provision is complete nonsense. But the conversation is at least catching up to the reality of what too much screen time does to young kids.
The missing piece here is adults. At the beginning of the pandemic, I parked my then five-year-olds on iPads for five hours a day to meet a book deadline that couldn’t be pushed. The minute I was able to, I kicked them both off, but the damage was done – not to my kids, who are still elastic enough to adapt to any new circumstance, but to me. The government can intercede, and public health warnings will help, but the biggest issue when it comes to overreliance on screens isn’t kids’ welfare so much as parental temptation. The knowledge, after a year of forced overuse, that when you have something pressing to do, or need a break, or have a meeting to schedule on a day the kids are at home, you can park them for hours online, where they won’t fight with each other or surface to ask for anything, is almost impossible to resist. Why hire a babysitter to take them outside when you can legally sedate them for free?
The tech companies are, of course, pushing back against the negative results of research into user harm. The Senate hearings on Facebook, which also owns Instagram, were triggered by a report in the Wall Street Journal in September into Facebook’s own research into the impact of Instagram on teenage girls. Headlines focused on leaked documents from Facebook that show how the company internally sought to downplay and undermine the negative findings with lots of weasily annotations about parameters. (“Contrary to how the objectives have been framed, this research was designed to understand user perceptions and not to provide measures of prevalence, statistical estimates for the correlation between Instagram and mental health or to evaluate causal claims between Instagram and health/wellbeing.”) And still none of this addresses parental addiction – not to the screens themselves, but to the cheap and wholly effective babysitting we know, thanks to the pandemic, they offer.
As with coming off any addiction, distraction helps. Three weeks into the school year and our after-school schedule is insane. If my kids come straight home, they inevitably end up on the iPads for two hours and are scratchy and overwhelmed by bedtime. And so we zigzag across town from school, to dance, to karate, to an after-school programme that keeps them outside for two hours and me from temptation. And while we don’t get home until 7pm, the kids are at least wired with good, clean exhaustion and fall asleep without trouble. It’s ridiculous, and draining, and not particularly sustainable. But until I can detox, it’s better than the old, digital alternative.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist