Welcome to this installment of our limited run advice column! Senior Features Writer Rebecca Ruiz and Director of Special Projects Alex Hazlett will be answering questions about screen time and digital family life during the pandemic. You can read our the rest of our advice here and here. Submit a question at email@example.com.
Is all screen time created equal? Meaning, is there good screen time, learning and chatting with friends vs. gaming and watching videos? –Ada
What’s the best way to start introducing a 2-year-old to screen time without creating bad habits? –Joy
All screen time is not created equal, and the guidelines are starting to catch up to that understanding. For example, FaceTime chats with grandparents, which used to be considered a verboten form of screen time for children younger than 18 months, . Especially now, when many grandparents are cut off from extended family, those video chats matter more than ever.
For older kids, the challenge is to place reasonable limits on screen time based on activity. Video games can be a shared family activity, , and provide a much-needed link with friends during social distancing. Certainly sometimes we all enjoy zoning out with an episode of television. But if your kid’s sleep, attitude, or school work suffer, try pulling back. When it comes to social media in particular, which tends to take place on a phone, there are more pitfalls related to mental health, and .
If you’re considering introducing screen time to a young child, be clear about your goals. Do you want your child to learn something? Economist Emily Oster, in her book Cribsheet, lays out a compelling case that this is possible, but not until ages 3-5. This is, not coincidentally, the target age group for Sesame Street and similar shows, but even then, you’ll want to (at least occasionally) co-watch with your child so you can understand what they’re watching and help them connect it to the real world.
If your goal is “please entertain my child for 20 minutes so I can do something else,” then by all means, choose a and have at it. But I might suggest feature on Netflix so you have control over starting the next episode. For a preschool-age child, two of my family’s favorites are Sesame Street and , an animated successor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When it comes to phone apps, The PBS Kids app (paid) has some games for that age group, though that was probably more useful when we still went out to dinner. In general, as my colleague Rebecca Ruiz has mentioned, paid apps will give you a level of gatekeeping and quality above those that are free, if you’re in a position to afford them.
Let’s talk for a minute about screen time to avoid, with the caveat that most of us have probably still done at least one of these more than once. Here is the hill I will die on: Do not let your kids go on YouTube unsupervised.
While some of the on YouTube and YouTube Kids have been fixed, it remains a platform that only addresses problems when there’s an outcry. That’s not to say that there aren’t good videos, just that it’s easy to start in a place you recognize and end up in one you don’t.
Try to pick a walled garden or a shortlist of shows that don’t annoy you too much. A very young child is happy to watch their favorite shows over and over and there are enough back catalogs of many children’s shows to occupy them for a couple years. Eventually, your child will get into something that you find annoying or stupid, but not actively harmful (here’s looking at you Paw Patrol), but they will love it and you will all survive. –Alex
My 10-year-old son is playing Roblox with older kids, who are also playing Fortnite. They are talking and “playing” with their friends over a headset. Yes, they are now obsessed with gaming. How concerned should we be? –Michelle Lee Nix, mom of 2
We never allowed video games until this started. Now there is A LOT of Roblox. But it involves interaction so…I’m kind of ok with it? –Anonymous
By itself, online gaming isn’t a bad thing. Yet parents whose children are gamers also know that the hobby isn’t the same thing as simply spending time online or using an app. Online gaming, perhaps somewhat like social media platforms, can be all consuming. There are levels to conquer, tricks to learn, and socializing that happens nowhere else. I think that’s what makes gaming so difficult to manage as a parent. You want to set firm boundaries so that gaming doesn’t take over your child’s life, but you don’t want to deprive them of an opportunity to spend time with friends, especially these days.
Roblox, in particular, is a favorite of adolescent gamers. Many kids have beneficial experiences on Roblox, expressing their creativity and learning new skills. Last summer, I interviewed Tami Bhaumik, Roblox’s vice president of marketing and digital civility, and I can tell you that the company has a thoughtful approach to creating a welcoming, safe environment for young users. To better understand Roblox’s platform and safety tools, I recommend checking out its .
Also, it’s critical that parents familiarize themselves with the chat software Discord, which many gamers use to message and talk to each other during play. Discord hosts communities, or “servers,” that allow messaging and voice and video chats. Servers can be open to anyone. As this Wall Street Journal reporter , it doesn’t take long on Discord to stumble across porn and Nazi memes. Discord has since updated its , but it’s not clear that users have updated their behavior. Growth spiked during the pandemic, and the company nearly double the number of trust and safety reports from users in the first six months of the year. A third of those reports were related to harassment. My point is this: If your child is using Discord for their gaming, be sure to understand how it works, what they’re seeing, and to whom they’re talking.
In general, when your child starts gaming, it’s time to have an ongoing conversation about how they want to use their time, how they’ll deal with sometimes missing out on gaming sessions with friends, and what to do if and when (let’s be honest) they encounter hate speech, bullying, or other types of harassment. Develop guidelines for use together and, at some point, sit down and play the game with them. How much is too much? If gaming is displacing other activities, like exercise, family time, and sleep, then you’ll need to help your child find a healthy balance. –Rebecca