Confessions of a Screen Time Mom
by Natalee Thornburgh
This spring rocked my world. I should start by saying I’m incredibly fortunate. My family is safe and healthy. We have what we need, and then some. And because I don’t work outside of the home, I was able to focus on my kids when school became virtual in March. In many ways, I’ve got it easy. But holy $%&! this spring was tough.
I love being the mom who piles all the neighbor kids in for a trip to the trampoline park. I love creating the home that those same kids show up at on weekend mornings, because my breakfasts are the best. I love having the necessary supplies, and agreeing to the impromptu sleepovers, and knowing which hair salon can give stylish haircuts to fidgety boys. I love being able to help out the parents who have the desire but not the time or resources to do the same. But you know when I can’t do that? When EVERYONE IS ALWAYS AROUND.
This spring, I found myself trying to help my boys with online school, while keeping them quiet enough for my husband to have his meetings from home, while still taking care of every meal and laundry and dishes and cleaning and groceries and broken appliances and worst of all, the mounting anxiety and depression that had poked out numerous times in my life, and were suddenly (though not unexpectedly) back with a vengeance. My mental health was suffering, which meant everyone was suffering.
Managing everybody, every hour of the day, was too much. So I did what lots of parents started doing — I loosened up on the screen time laws. First, just a little bit. I gave them a few hours every afternoon that were screen time approved. Then I started letting them earn screen time minutes by doing chores or being active. But soon, managing the rules (was it Charlie who got 24 extra minutes and Will who got 17?) and the negotiations (I know my screen time is 4-6 but Leo’s is 11-1 and we want to be in the same Minecraft world!) were making life worse, not better.
So I dug deep — all the way back to my own childhood. A child of the 80’s with a doting stay-at-home mom of my own, I thought about my free time. Smiling, I recalled eating cereal in front of endless Saturday morning cartoons, followed by some fierce Legend of Zelda time on the Nintendo. Proud, I remembered every scene in every Madonna video, thanks to my nonstop summertime MTV viewing marathons. And I thought of the other key element in my childhood – interacting with my friends and neighbors — and realized that in a pandemic (where triple digit temperatures were making prolonged outdoor socialization untenable), my boys were able to keep doing that through their screens, in Minecraft and Roblox. I had an epiphany — they’ll be fine.
So I loosened up the screen time rules. Like, really loosened them. Like, there really weren’t any anymore. And you know what? Contrary to what I was convinced by the whole world would happen, everything got better. My kids did not turn into zombies. Their sleep patterns didn’t suffer. The begging and negotiations ratcheted down significantly. And if anything, the “violence” in the house was reduced – they began getting along with each other better, having more “time apart” with their friends.
I’m not going to say this is the optimal long term plan. We haven’t yet decided if and how we’ll set boundaries when school starts. And to be clear, I am far from an expert in screen time or child psychology. But in a world where judgment seems to often trump kindness, and parents are reticent to admit when they aren’t following generally accepted guidelines, I wanted to let you know — my kids spent a whole lotta time on screens this summer, and we lived to tell the tale.