Screen time, the thief: 5 ways screen time robs our kids (and us)


I have four kids, ages 7 to 13. We move every three years or so and currently we live in Greece. I have my sleeves rolled up, as a mom, on everything from battling the dailyness of dinner for six, translating littlest’s Greek homework, correcting t(w)een attitudes, enforcing piano practice, chauffeuring the after school activity loop. You know the stuff I’m talking about - you probably live it too, in your sphere with your specifics. But the thing that probably consumes the biggest part of my parenting energy and thinking is technology. You know, screens- TV, video games, tablets, mp3 players, phones. My brain’s forever full of questions like: are we setting the right limits and managing what we have now in the best way? What’s the smartest way- and timing - to start phasing in components we don’t have yet? And ultimately… how do we play this game and not lose?

Simply not playing the game isn’t an option in today’s world. Every year the technology surrounding us (and our kids) increases. More hours on video games, and more new games. More kids on tablets in the grocery store line. More cars with built-in TVs. Kids getting phones at younger ages. And our crew isn’t anti-technology, wouldn’t qualify as Luddites, but you wouldn’t know it from my children’s perspectives, or comments. Most of their peers are more screen-centric than they are, so they call it like they see it (and fair enough). No matter that we have TV, a family laptop, a family iPad, individual Kindles, an Xbox, an mp3 player, nearly daily TV or video game time. Our screen time limits are still stricter than most other people’s, and none of our kids has a phone or iPod.

Last weekend our youngest daughter invited two of her classmates over for a playdate, the first of its kind. She was jubilant when both accepted, and we talked through what they might do during those couple hours. Beforehand we brainstormed driveway chalk, hide and seek and kick the can, Legos, extended snack (she had baked a cake). She asked if they could watch a show together or play Minecraft; I said no. She fretted that they’d be bored, and it turned out her concerns were grounded. “Your house is boring,” one of my daughter’s guests announced after an hour. “There’s nothing to do here.” I overheard and stepped in with a few pertinent words, plus an encouragement toward new options, after which they resignedly came up with a game. My daughter whispered fiercely in my ear, “See? I told you they’d be bored.”

Afterwards I found myself pondering the level of expectation of all the kids - my own included - that electronics will be part of time together when they hang out. Will be and should be. It will be a fun playdate if (and only if) some portion of the time includes screens. And preferably, because I know how this goes, as much time as possible. But I saw it this way: they’re seven, the sun was shining, and their allotted time together was less than three hours. Screens are not intended for such a time as this.

We allow our oldest to play Fortnite, and we closely monitor the amount of time he plays. He gets 30 minutes or less on slow weeknights when there’s extra time, and up to two hours a day (an hour at a time) on weekends. This seems like a lot to me - too much, at times. It’s seemingly less than most of his peers he plays online with, though; he’s always the first to have to get off. And he’s also, to his chagrin, the least skilled among the players.

This month I was talking with a Greek acquaintance about smart phones. Her oldest children are 13 and 14, and they got phones this year for the first time. “I didn’t want to get them so soon,” she said, “but they were the only children in their classes without phones. It felt unfair to put them in that position. If there were even one or two others without phones, I would have waited,” she said. Now, she told me, the single biggest point of contention and conflict between herself and her kids are their phones. “It is all we fight about,” she said, “and we fight about it all the time.” She told me it seemed like today kids don’t know how to talk to each other except on their phones, and that even flirting between boys and girls seems to place only via phones.

When it comes to the discussion about kids, screens, and safety, it seems people often think about physical safety, like “stranger danger” from predators. Or they think about exposure to porn. These are real concerns and cross my mind too, sure, but for me they’re not the central part of the Overall Screen Angst I feel for my kids and their generation. For me, the deeper concerns relate to their development and their soul formation. They’re whole person concerns.

When I think about screens and my kids, here are the things that make me feel most dismayed.

I lament:

  1. The life-giving things kids could and would be doing if they weren’t so excited about their screens. The stuff that used to seem fun fulfilling - bikes to ride, hoops to shoot, roads to wander, games to play, treats to bake, art to paint, wood to whittle, skits to enact. The escapades and antics of childhood, the stuff that makes memories for a lifetime, aren’t found when attention is focused on screens.

  2. The initiative-taking, self-reliance, creativity, and diligence that kids could access more easily if recreation weren’t handed to them on a pixelated, adrenaline-inducing platter. Screens are a lazy-man’s sport, and Sitting Around is their lifeblood. The ingredients of virtue and valour largely ebb out of the picture when kids engage, beyond the minimum, in screen time.

  3. The meaningful connections that could be forged but aren’t because of the loneliness that screens promote. Loneliness grows both among kids who continually utilise screens and also among those without them who sit on the outside of the club, looking wistfully in. Either way, the more there are screens in the lives of the worlds’ kids, the more there is loneliness.

  4. The depth of relationship, the stuff of solid friendships, that kids aren’t able to foster because connecting via screens, or sitting next to each other while both focused on screens, don’t lend themselves to cultivating depth. More than most things, I long for my kids to have close friendships, but it’s harder today. Really knowing and being known - the crucial ingredients to friendship - aren’t fostered through screens.

  5. The “freedom of brain” that prior generations grew up with, that now seems idyllic and almost naive. Reaching for a screen and its contents means a mind isn’t free or at rest. And today kids must struggle against addiction their whole lives, to greater and lesser degrees, since they become entwined with screens’ addictive elements at such young ages.

  6. The innocence that kids could enjoy more easily when screens weren’t a huge part of daily life. Engagement with screens, in all their forms, makes children encounter everything at younger ages - everything from bullying to porn to mature topics like sexual identity and cutting. It’s all the doorstep of the whole world, which means it’s that much likely that all the kids will know about it.

  7. The adolescent self-esteem issues that could be basic and simple - awkward rites of passage encountered by all humans - instead of amped up and intensified by screens, especially social media. The pressure to curate one’s life, make it interesting and appealing to others, is hard enough for adults to manage well (including for me), let alone for kids. Seeking to earn “likes,” the endless selfie culture, cyber bullying, seeing every event one is not invited too - these detract far more from social and emotional health more than add to it.

  8. The absence of conflict between parents and kids around issues of technology that prior generations enjoyed. Today, kids’ natural drive toward technology and parents’ right concerns and corresponding effort to limit technology is among the biggest stressors in parent-child relationships. (Ask me how I know.)

(OK so there are 8. Turns out I couldn’t stop at 5!)

Screens are robbing kids of all this, and they’re robbing us parents too. There’s nothing wrong with the tools themselves; they’re in fact very helpful in many ways! But as a society we’re putting something with dangerous potential into our kids’ hands, and then we aren’t paying close attention to its whole-person, whole-society consequences. When you think of the call toward “whatever is good, whatever is noble, whatever is right, if anything is excellent and praiseworthy…” - bottom line is that screens (and their effects on kids) aren’t, more often than they are.

All Debbie Downer here, I know; the post is a lament, so this is what you get here today! In general I’m not one for negativity, partly because I’m a born problem-solver. And I do think there are solutions to the problems we all now accrue from the world’s excessive screens. We can mitigate the damage, and we can camp out in the positive spaces (which do exist). Here though, I’m just wanting to look the thing square in the face and admit: there’s a bit of a monster out there.

More thoughts on how we can tame it - or at least, how I’m trying to tame it at my house - in posts to come.

Do you feel dismay when it comes to screens and culture (and especially screens and kids)? Do you feel robbed? If so, what parts vex you the most? Your thoughts on how to counter the challenges?


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