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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 1, 2020
By Heather Laura Clarke
Special to Saltwire Network
“What time can we start screens in the morning?”
“What time do we have to get off screens?”
“If I get dressed, can I go back on screens?”
“We’re so bored. Can we have screens?”
“Alexa, make an announcement . . . ‘TIME TO GET OFF SCREENS!’”
It feels like all I do these days is police the amount of screen time in our house.
I get especially twitchy when I feel our son and daughter are spending too much time on screens because “screen time” today is very different now than it was when they were younger.
Back in the day, they’d eat their Goldfish crackers together at their child-sized table and chairs, watching episodes of Bubble Guppies up on the living room TV. They were mostly zoned out, of course, but at least they were together – and my husband or I was nearby, half-listening. It felt OK.
But now they’re miles apart from each other even when they’re in the same room. They each have headphones clamped on their ears, connected to their own devices. Our 10-year-old son is either on his computer or his Nintendo Switch, and our eight-year-old daughter is either on the Chromebook or the tablet.
While the “silent” part is great, it’s also eerie. I can yell their names from across the room and they usually don’t even hear me. I was glad when our son switched to a fancy gamer headset because it meant one ear was always free, ready to hear me calling for one of them.
I’ve heard rumours that some kids get bored of screens eventually and wander off to play, but that has not been the case with these two. Ever. They will sit there, fixating on those little screens, for as long as I let them.
What bothers me most about these solo zone-out sessions is that they’re not interacting with each other. One is playing Minecraft while the other is watching YouTube. Or one is watching YouTube while the other is playing Roblox. There is zero crossover.
If the kids spent the exact same amount of time lying on the couch together watching the same Netflix show on the same TV, it wouldn’t bother me because it would count, however loosely, as “togetherness.”
In fact, sometimes when I’m desperate for quiet time to work, I’ll tell them their only screen option is to do something together – watch a show, watch a movie, play a video game, etc. I’ll be working away in my office in the basement, and I’ll hear them chattering above me about what to watch/play, arguing quietly and then compromising about what to watch/play first.
They’re still on screens, but it feels “better” because at least they’re doing something together.
It’s hard for me to accept that “screen time” in general is so very different than it was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.
When I was a kid, there were key times when our shows were aired – like before school, before supper and on weekend mornings – and we usually watched them with another family member. Playing video games meant a crowd of kids taking turns with the two corded NES controllers and blowing into cartridges. We listened to music on our Walkmans with headphones sometimes, but mostly listened to it with friends on bubble-gum pink boomboxes.
Today, screen time is much more solo. Our son’s Nintendo Switch can hook up to the TV for multiplayer games, but he mostly uses it in its handheld form. Our daughter could watch YouTube on the TV easily, but prefers the tiny screen of the Chromebook. And always, always with the headphones.
I’ve been thinking about screen time more lately because it’s a COVID summer without day camp or childcare.
I still need to work full-time hours here at home, and my husband’s working on a new shift that keeps him out of the house from breakfast until bedtime. I can’t take the kids anywhere when I need to stay at my desk and work, so they read and play and whine and, yes, they go on their devices the second I let them.
I feel a huge amount of guilt over this. I try to stop obsessing over how much I wish things could be different. I wish they could be playing games and running around outside at day camp, but that’s not an option. I wish my husband’s schedule meant he could do fun activities with them while I worked, but it doesn’t. I wish it didn’t fall on me to provide or suggest ways for them to entertain themselves all day long, but it does.
But I know I have to be kinder to myself. The fact is that I NEED them to be on screen sometimes because it’s the only way they’re completely quiet. Creating a Playmobil video together is all well and good until they’re crashing around overhead while I’m on a work call.
It’s not my fault COVID-19 viciously ripped away all the day camps in our area. It’s not my fault my work schedule overlaps with my husband’s right now. It’s not my fault that the fact that I have to work means the kids aren’t having a very fun summer.
I mean, is it really that terrible that our kids go on screens separately, with headphones? Is it that awful if they’re on screens more often this summer?
I can romanticize my childhood Nintendo games and T.G.I.F. lineups all I want, but the fact is that I spent the summer I was an 11-year-old watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial with my babysitter. That can’t be any worse than a few last-to-leave challenge videos on YouTube.
Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist who married her high-school sweetheart. They moved from the city to the country, where they spend their days making messes and memories with their 10-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter. Follow their family’s adventures over at www.HeathersHandmadeLife.com.