This week, The New York Times warned of the “epic screen time withdrawal” that will occur when everything goes back to normal. How about giving parents a break?



Earlier this week, The New York Times suggested that the extra screen time COVID-19 has enabled is too much, suggesting that the soaring time our children have spent on devices will soon spell trouble.

“There will be a period of epic withdrawal,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, an addiction expert and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama on drug policy. It will, he said, require young people to “sustain attention in normal interactions without getting a reward hit every few seconds.”

Despite this, earlier research has suggested that families who screen together, stay together, as an increase in devices sees a direct increase in family time.

In 2019, two researchers (Killian Mullan from Oxford University and Stella Chatzitheochari from the University of Warwick) viewed time-use data from about 5,000 British families, from it, they noted a couple of spikes.

The researchers discovered that between 2000 and 2015, parents with kids aged 8-16 spent 9% more time together: 379 minutes per day in 2015, versus 347 minutes per day in 2000.

The families also spent roughly the same amount of time on “shared activities,” such as eating meals and watching TV.

But the biggest change was the rise in “alone-together” time—that is, in the same house but not in the presence of one another. So-called alone-together time jumped by 43% over the period of study, to 136 minutes per day in 2015.

“For all of the additional time they were together, children said they were alone,” Mullan said.

A lot of this alone-together time is taken up by tech, the researchers found. 2015 data suggested that children and parents used mobile devices for: 38% of total family time, 47% of alone-together time and 27% of shared activity time

Devices might be creeping into our activities, but they’re not taking them over. For example, the kids reported checking their phones for 90 seconds during meals. Adults reported checking their devices for twice the time as kids. Similarly, the same pattern holds when watching television, the youth checked their devices for about five out of the 30 minutes they were watching, while parents spent seven minutes on their phones during the same period.

The term “alone together” was authored by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who believes our heightened disconnection has resulted in kids not knowing how to converse properly. “Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy,” she wrote in the New York Times. “We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from a conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”

The authors of the study acknowledge this. “While we did not find any significant changes in the time family members spend interacting and doing things together,” Chatzitheochari said in a statement, “it is certainly possible that mobile devices distract people’s attention during family activities, leading to feelings that the quality of family relationships is under threat.”

Mullan said the findings surprised him. “The perception that it’s all of the time, that the use of devices has taken over shared activities—we can show that it’s not that much time,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important or not experienced as problematic…it seems over time there’s more of a move to carving out that time in the home at the expense of spending time outside the home,” he said.

As The New York Times noted, Dr Jenny Radesky who is “a paediatrician who studies children’s use of mobile technology at the University of Michigan, said she did countless media interviews early in the pandemic, telling parents not to feel guilty about allowing more screen time, given the stark challenges of lockdowns. Now, she said, she’d have given different advice if she had known how long children would end up stuck at home.”

“I probably would have encouraged families to turn off Wi-Fi except during school hours so kids don’t feel tempted every moment, night and day,” she said, adding, “The longer they’ve been doing a habituated behaviour, the harder it’s going to be to break the habit.”

Speaking as a parent, we clearly can do nothing right. It’s almost like we’re being punished for keeping our children entertained in the peak of a pandemic, when they’re here, and we’re trying to stay afloat, and make sure they’re enjoying (and staying connected) during what must be a horrific time for them.

Lay off, you lot.





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