Daily Reaction: Let’s Talk About That New York Times Article About Increased Screen Time for Children

Ah, the good old wheel of video game discourse keeps on spinning. It seems we’ve landed back on the “too much screen time/video games/ internet is harmful to children” topic, with the ongoing pandemic leading to increases in screen time/video games/internet for children—and let’s be honest, increases for most people. The latest surge in the discourse comes from a New York Times article singling out one 14-year old boy and his parents as part of a bigger story, complete with quotes from professors and researchers about the whole thing.

Let’s first admit that we live in unusual times, and not just because of a year-long pandemic that’s still going strong. Even before 2020, we’d seen drastic and rapid increases in technological advancement that fundamentally changed how people interacted with the world, with each other. It’s altered methods of parenting and coping, and can be both the cause and solution for much of our stressors. We can’t ignore how problematic it can be, but we also can’t entirely paint it negatively. Yet the discourse continues to color it in black and white.

The New York Times article that caused a stir this weekend focuses entirely on the problem as it pertains to children, children who are growing up in an increasingly digital world. For good measure, it ties the impact of the pandemic into the problem, highlighting changes in behaviors that have come as a result of the quarantines and lockdowns. Children are spending more time in front of screens, whether it’s attached to their phones, sitting on a computer, or plopped in front a TV with controller in hand.

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There’s psychological backing for “screens”—a term that has become a universal catch all for social media, video games, TV, movies, internet, etc.—being addicting, triggering a dopamine hit within the reward center of the brain that feels good, which in turn drives addictive behaviors related to screens. And as it relates children, this is an undoubtedly sensitive topic. After all, things that are addictive have devastating effects on the developing brain. And technology advanced far faster than we as a society could find optimal solutions for that. In fact, it advanced and thrived in spite of it, and some might say, because of it.

The Parent Trap

And yet one of the key lines in the article comes early on. “When the outbreak hit, many parents relaxed restrictions on screens as a stopgap way to keep frustrated, restless children entertained and engaged,” writes The New York Times. This isn’t about screens or screen time. This is about parenting, and the ability of parents to adapt to rapidly changing technology and, of course, how the pandemic shifted the landscape of social behaviors—for everyone, not just children. Now that’s not to say that being a parent isn’t difficult, both overall and in these increasingly difficult times we’re living in, but shifting the blame to the symptoms feels a lot like it absolves the responsibility of parents to say “oh, well, those darn screens!”

Parents are increasingly confused with how to handle screen time amidst the pandemic, when everything from school to social lives is put behind a digital device. The New York Times article expresses that concern repeatedly. How do parents limit screen time for kids, while allowing them to use those very things for basic needs. I, as an adult, have turned to screens for not only my career, but socializing. I spend more time with friends in a Destiny Raid or a Call of Duty Warzone lobby than I do in person, even without considering the pandemic. I chase those dopamine hits of Trophies and unlocks in games, and I frequently catch myself with Twitter open on both my computer and phone.

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But I, as an adult, have learned how to responsibly (mostly) handle those things for myself. For children, parents are often caught using screens as an alternative parent, and then blame the screens when their kids don’t turn out how they want them to. From another line in the article: “She and her husband bought him an Xbox for his birthday and an iPhone for Christmas.” It was the parents who ultimately shoulder the responsibility here.

She also relaxed a rule against first-person shooter games. “I kind of gave up on that, too,” she said. When her older boy plays Xbox, “he laughs and has some social interaction with his buddies,” she said. She’d hoped he would use his new phone to text and talk to friends. But, she said, “he mostly uses it for games.”

“I kind of gave up on that too.” That’s a stunning admission, one that shows parents simply don’t know how to parent, how to engage with technology that wasn’t a part of their lives growing up, but has become ubiquitous to existence now. And as a reaction to something that don’t—to something they can’t—fully understand, there’s a friction there, seeing these “screens” as a bad thing even while facilitating their use.

The article uses the Reichert family to highlight this, showing the divide between a gaming son and a father who believes he’s “failed” his child. And yet, the son, James, doesn’t seem to have any egregious issues. He socializes with his friends on Xbox, both chasing rewards in games and just playing for fun. His phone has become a lifeline, just like it has for many adults. James’ story seems pretty standard in 2021. And when the family dog died on New Year’s Eve, James turned to games to help him cope, something his parents weren’t exactly thrilled with.

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“What are you going to do when you’re married and stressed? Tell your wife that you need to play Xbox?” James’ mother is quoted as saying to her son during the interview with The New York Times. And yet, isn’t that precisely what many adults are actually doing anyway? After a long stressful day of work, both my wife and I turn to video games at the end of the day for stress relief and fun. It’s not exactly unusual, and not altogether a bad thing, yet the article highlights just how much many parents don’t understand “screens” and gaming.

Which makes me question what the point of the article from The New York Times is at all. It doesn’t ever really get to a point, just tossing together some loose associations from research interspersed by anecdotal evidence from interviews from a couple of families. What is it trying to say about this topic, especially as it pertains to the likely readership of an article like that? It makes villains of games, of screens. But it barely addresses the responsibility parents have. In fact, it even calls to attention a blatant disregard and disinterest by the parents.

Scapegoating the Screens

There are a few facts here:

  • Children are highly influenced by their environment and by addictive behaviors, including the dopamine rush granted by “screens.”
  • Technology is changing at a faster clip than most people are prepared for, and has fundamentally changed how parents must raise their children.
  • Unfettered screen time access is absolutely a problem, but one that can’t be relegated entirely to the blame of “screens” themselves.
  • The march of advancement in technology and increasing prevalence of “screens” isn’t going to stop or revert.

So how do we navigate this increasingly digital world and raising children within it? First, we dispense with these kinds of articles from The New York Times that paint it as an us versus them thing. Researchers and parents and articles love to position screens and games as something like alcohol or drugs, but it’s not really all that simple. Yes, it can have the same damaging effects on developing brains, but it’s not really the same thing at all, so dealing with it in the same way isn’t—and can’t be—the answer.

What if, instead of pushing back against screens and games and technology, parents sought to understand those things, and what their kids get from them? What if parents engaged within games with their kids, working out limits and restrictions with them, educating them, but at the same time, educating themselves? Education and understanding is crucial, rather than parents pitting themselves “against” their kids in an effort to push back against a changing world that nobody really fully understands. Even the landscape of gaming alone has changed dramatically in the last decade.

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I come from an in-between generation. I grew up as a ’90s kid, watching the advancement of technology. I had video games as a kid growing up. I had painfully slow dial-up internet. I even had a cell phone, before the concept of “apps” was even really fully formed. My parents had to navigate a changing world with me, and then even more so with my younger siblings, and watching them go through that has shown me just how difficult it’s been to adapt to a world where kids are growing up completely differently from how their parents were raised.

My parents tried their best with each of their four kids. But the fact is that kids are a product of their environment, and the circumstances around every kid—even just among the four in my family—can be entirely different. So this isn’t about “screens” or a pandemic—as much as it’s exactly about those very things. It’s about parents and families understanding their circumstances and working with their children to navigate a changing world of technology through understanding and connection.

I’m not trying to say that any of this is easy at all. But its continued rough and predictable handling in 2021 is a tired trope that we need to move on from, especially amidst a pandemic that has further changed the game.

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