Scenario: your kids are looking at screens, like, 24-7. You don’t think they’ve looked you in the eye in weeks. In fact, you’re starting to wonder whether they even remember what you look like. You’re worried they’re spending way too much time with their computers and consoles, and hey, let’s be honest—you miss your children!
This is new for families. In the past, we didn’t have this many devices and interfaces surrounding us all the time—there was the TV, sure, and in the more recent past, maybe a family computer—but that was it. Today we’ve got smartphones, handheld game consoles, tablets, laptops, and hey, the television hasn’t exactly disappeared either.
I’m not here to tell you not to worry. (Like you would stop, right?) I am here to tell you to take a deep breath, step back, and look past the screens. First things first: I’m a millennial. I grew up with all these things, to some degree, and they certainly saturate my life now. I spend a lot of time with teens and young adults. When we interact with devices, here’s what we’re doing.
1. Spending Time With Friends
This is true whether it’s texting, playing online games, or doing social media. The screen for us is a pathway to sociality, and everybody knows how much tweens and teens love their social lives.
This is especially true when it comes to video games. Gaming might not look like relaxation from the outside, but it’s a great way to relax our brains and take our minds off the stuff that builds up during the day. This can be especially important for teens, who are dealing with a whole lot of “stuff”—social drama, anxiety about grades and the future, driving lessons, college, first loves, changing friendship circles, teachers, geometry, fashion…etc. You catch my drift.
I’m not just talking about homework—although that’s certainly part of the equation too. But I know tons of kids who are engaging, meaningfully, with online content in ways never possible before—discussing politics and social issues, reading articles about history, and absorbing important lessons about sexual safety and consent. (Games are one important gateway to these conversations, by the way.)
There’s an incredible amount of creativity happening on screens these days. Whether it’s writing music, making digital art, programming games, or posting poetry and fiction to online journals, kids are creating some of the most inspiring stuff I’ve ever encountered.
5. Being alone
Kids, especially teens of a certain age, really do need their me-time. They spend all day with people; classmates and teachers take up a lot of social energy. It can be tough to come home to parents who demand even more of their time, even when all you wanted was to spend some quality time with your kids. It’s not that your kids don’t like you, it’s just that they sometimes need some time to decompress—from everyone.
One of the best ways to avoid being a source of stress for busy, anxious teens is to know when to save stressful conversations for another time. Set aside some time, whether it’s dinner, walking the dogs, or doing chores together, where you don’t bring up contentious issues. (Don’t ask about grades. Don’t ask about career goals. Seriously. If they want to talk about it they’ll bring it up.)
Basically, the deal is that all that screentime is not actually “screentime”—it’s learning, it’s creativity, it’s relaxation and it’s friends. It’s just as much life as life outside of the screen is. That being said, there’s also a lot of benefits that come with non-screen life (you know, like eye contact). So, while you don’t want to simply rip your kids away from the…learning, creativity, relaxation, and friends…you might still want them to have some balance. That can be really tough, I’m not going to lie. I struggle with it in my own day-to-day life, since I work, play, and relax on screens myself.
So what can you do?
Remind yourself what screentime is to your kids. Always keep in mind what you’re divorcing them from when you try to get them to leave their devices alone. Offer them creative alternatives: non-screentime that’s as engaging and meaningful as their screentime is. Model the behavior you want them to imitate. Plan activities you can all enjoy—i.e., discuss ideas with your kids beforehand and make compromises—and leave the devices at home when you do them. Remind your kids to get up and moving periodically.
And most importantly? Find ways to hang out with them where they live. Play games with them. Ask them to share their creative pursuits with you. Learn how to navigate the world they spend so much time with, and learn what it means to them. Finally, trust that your kids are amazing individuals who aren’t just wasting their lives away, and make sure they know you trust them.