The issue of how much screen time is healthy for kids was murky even before the pandemic. Dueling research claimed that screens were about as worrisome as potatoes, or that they were ruining the mental health of a generation. Parents were, unsurprisingly, confused.
Many are still confused, but thanks to weeks of lockdown and school closures they've had to throw up their hands and allow their children a lot more screen time. That means a ton of parents are both reliant on gadgets to get anything done and wracked with guilt about what this time on devices is doing to their kids' brains (my hand is in the air).
They should probably chill out, insists Cambridge University psychologist Amy Orben in the UK Guardian newspaper.
While many parents obsess over the quantity of time their kids spend in front of screens, it's the quality of what they're doing online that actually matters. Monitoring what your children are up to will get you a lot further than fighting with them about time limits.
Quality matters more than quantity
Orben kicks off the fascinating article with a run through of how the lockdown is likely to affect kids of differing ages. Teenagers, who are naturally focused on their peers not their parents, are generally suffering the worst, she concludes. As a result many parents are watching and worrying as their older kids stare at their phones all day. But even younger kids are getting a lot more screen time.
Parents' concern is natural but not actually something that science supports. "Screens are not drugs that have definite impacts on brain and behavior; indeed, high-quality evidence that screens themselves do widespread harm is almost non-existent," Orben asserts.
What does matters isn't the sheer quantity of time kids spend online, but instead the quality of what they're doing with that time. Activities that encourage social connection and creation are generally preferable to passive viewing.
"I encourage parents to worry less about time spent by their children on screens and instead focus on what they're doing with them. Activities such as video calling friends, exchanges via social media or playing Fortnite with friends online will all help keep children and teenagers connected throughout the lockdown," Orben writes.
Separate advice from an MIT researcher suggests using digital tools to make things, from websites to TikTok videos, is actually a great way to encourage kids' creativity.
Watching your child staring at their phone all day can make you despair, but take a breathe before you argue with your surly, housebound kid. You both have plenty on your plate already. If your child's flying thumbs and unbroken concentration are aimed at creating something - be that a conversation or a meme - it's probably not worth fighting about.