Your kids don’t have a problem with screen time – YOU do!
As parents, we constantly worry about our kids getting too much screen time. But we are the ones who enable them, encourage them and serve as a bad example.
Hey kiddos, I’m sorry. I’m always on your case about too much screen time. But maybe it’s not about you. Maybe the problem is me.
It all began with Incredibles 2. More than halfway through the movie, I realised (a bit too late) that there was a message in it for parents. It was a message that was disturbing and unsettling and a bit depressing. But it was also brilliant, and you have to hear it.
But before anything else: ***Spoiler alert!!!***
Still here? Alright, here goes: So it turns out, the movie’s villain, the Screenslaver, was a not-so-subtle metaphor for screen time. Yes, her super power was mind control. All she had to do was make you look at any screen and you were reduced to a mindless zombie.
In my household, it’s a daily occurrence. Pass the kids the iPad and – BOOM! – they’re gone. You can’t talk to them. They refuse to eat. They do everything the iPad tells them to do, like a good mindless zombie: Jump! Swipe! Farm resources! Watch this video! Click on this ad!
But wait. It gets more disturbing. Later on in the movie, the Screenslaver puts little screens on a device that looks like goggles, or a virtual reality headset maybe, like Samsung’s Gear VR. And then the dastardly villain slaps them onto Elastigirl’s head and – BAM! –she’s a mindless zombie. All too soon, Mr Incredible is a zombie too, leaving the Parr kids, Violet, Dash and Jack Jack alone.
At that moment in the movie, yeah, I didn’t feel too good about myself. Day in and day out, I worry about if the kids are spending too much time in front of screens. Are they falling behind? Is this affecting their behaviour? But as it turns out, the first ones to fall victim to the Screenslaver is none other than mum, or dad, glued to their laptops and iPhones, scrolling down, scrolling down, scrolling down…
Yes, mums and dads, the mindless zombie is you.
The Perils of Too Much Screen Time
You’ve probably heard it before: Screen time isn’t good for your kids. Here at theAsianparent, we have countless articles about the topic. Try this one out for size: Too much screen time damages the brains of young children. Yeah, it's poison for really little kids. Or here’s an oldie and a goodie about screen time disrupting children’s sleep patterns.
Meanwhile, on a related note, the World Health Organization, recently damned video games by recognising video game disorder as a real, honest-to-goodness disease.
Some research even compares smart phones to cocaine for kids. Too much, you ask? Did they go too far? Probably not. Just ask any parent. They will tell you it’s a fair comparison.
The literature about screen time is overwhelmingly negative. But the message is clear, unanimous even: Screen time has to be moderated.
Now before you burn your kid’s iPad, it also has to be said that the research is united about other things. One, it’s too early to make sweeping generalisations. And two, more research needs to be done. So keep calm, and carry on.
Disclaimer aside, even educators view screen time as a potential problem. During orientation in my sons’ school, the school principal urged parents to moderate or eliminate screen time at home. In response, the assembled parents barely looked up from their iPhones and went on scrolling, scrolling, scrolling…
Moderating Screen Time – For Parents
We all love our phones and what they help us to do. But maybe the problem of screen time isn’t about our kids.
When my second son was four, he used to draw his mother – quite adorably – with a mobile phone in one of her stick figure hands. We thought it was cute, but it did give us pause. (In fairness to my wife, she is always on her phone because she works as a blogger.) Some kids even go so far as to say, “I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.” Heartbreaking.
And it gets much worse.
The news is full of cases of distracted parenting – and they are horrifying. Who can ever forget the case of a toddler getting run over by an SUV as her mother was checking her phone?
We entrust our children to nannies, and it turns out they are just as distracted as we are, with all the behavioural problems (failure to regulate emotions, violent behaviour) that come with screen time.
When the Screenslaver proclaims, “Every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever sheltered, ever ravenous consumers,” it hits home. She was telling us that we are the addicts. We are the screen time junkies.
Just turn on the news (the real news, not the fake news) to find out how the mobile phone and social media tandem have turned our lives into a particularly dystopian episode of Dark Mirror.
Our data has been stolen and sold by Facebook to be nefariously used by Cambridge Analytica to hack our democracies to fuel Brexit and put minority-elected populists in power (Trump, Duterte) and inflict suffering on the powerless (immigrants, "addicts" in the war on drugs). We rage in our online echo chambers where no one but like-minded people can hear us, growing ever more hooked to the endless stream of vapid memes so our brains can receive that little dopamine rush that we receive from every like. Heart heart heart. Smiley-face.
All this as our children are trapped in the same rat’s maze, neck-deep in YouTube unboxing videos and ad-driven video games, instead of their parent’s embrace.
Put down that phone
Maybe screen time isn’t a problem at all. Maybe too much screen time is the problem. Or maybe parents are the problem. We blame the screens. But thanks to the iPad, my own kids are learning Mandarin, taking piano lessons and making amazing creations on Minecraft (together in co-op play). Mind you, they can also spend all day watching brainless video game streams on YouTube.
Maybe I should put a stop to that. But to do so, I would have to do something none of us mindless zombie screen addicts want to do. I’d have to do the unthinkable. I’d have to put my own phone down first. Maybe that's all it takes.