Before the coronavirus outbreak, Brett Vergara abided by the trendy advice that excessive “screen time” was as bad as smoking, but for your brain. He would put his phone on airplane mode at work to make its screen less alluring. Then last month, New York forced him to stay at home with roommates he hardly knows. “There’s just a different lens to the world we’re currently in,” the 27-year-old said during a break from playing the latest “Animal Crossing” video game.
A few weeks in, America’s great self-quarantine is prompting a rethink of one of the great villains of modern technology: screens. Now your devices are portals to employment and education, ways to keep you inside and build community, and vital reminders you’re not alone. The old concerns aren’t gone, but they look different when people are just trying to get by.
Artist Anne-Marie Kavulla, a 44-year-old mother of three, says what many overwhelmed parents are thinking: “We’re tapped out and we get to the point where that’s all I want to do, too.” Her kids now attend online classes for their previously media-free Waldorf school and she’s been letting them earn extra YouTube time, too. “That’s why we give in: We get it.”
Before our new normal, screen time concerns had spawned an industry of screen “addiction” experts, books and detox events. Researchers have linked excessive screen time to depression and obesity. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics decreed that kids aged 2 to 5 should have no more than one hour of screen time per day. In 2018, facing criticism from lawmakers and even some investors, Apple and Google added controls to their software to, theoretically, encourage people to use their devices less.
Now many experts are reframing the issue, at least temporarily, and rejecting screen shame. Last week, the World Health Organization officially encouraged people to play video games as a way to get us to stay at home. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people “call, video chat, or stay connected using social media.”
Those screens are doing important jobs. They’re a way to keep kids distracted while parents working from home try to balance nonstop video meetings and Slack notifications. With seniors confined to their rooms for safety, nursing homes have replaced daily activities with family video calls. Shows like Netflix’s top-ranked “Tiger King” are escapes to even-crazier realities.
And for millions of Americans struggling with isolation or depression, screens are a path for healing. Every day at 9 p.m., 28-year-old New York comedian Kelly Bachman hops on a video chat with complete strangers from around the world to read aloud “Harry Potter.” The connection is a “joyful constant,” she said. “We are trying to find light in dark places as Dumbledore would."
Unsurprising to anyone sheltering in place alone or home schooling kids, Americans fortunate enough to have home broadband have never used it more. Comcast says its peak network traffic is up as much as 60 percent in some regions. Verizon says overall network traffic for video games is up 102 percent. Half of Americans think a home Internet outage would be a “very big” problem right now, according to the Pew Research Center.
We tried contacting some of the people who made screen time a bad word. Some declined to talk about how they were coping holed up sans screens, even though they sure seemed busy tweeting and blogging. What we heard from most other doctors and therapists is that it’s okay to have more screen time now — just try to focus on the quality kind.
“I don’t want parents to beat themselves up about anything,” said Nusheen Ameenuddin, a Mayo Clinic doctor and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on communications and media. “These are really extraordinary, unusual circumstances and we don’t expect anyone — even before covid-19 — to follow rules 100 percent.”
It’s not so much that phones and tablets are all good now. The lesson, as family media advocacy organization Common Sense Media advised this week, is that perhaps the wrong idea entered popular culture: that all screen time was the same.
Even Jean Twenge, the author of the alarm-ringing 2017 book “IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” has some slightly updated advice for parents. “Spending an hour or two a day with devices during leisure time doesn’t seem to be harmful for mental health,” she wrote in a blog post last week.
In an interview, Twenge said what’s new is that she would “give more leeway for video chat, because that is the closest we can come to in-person social interaction.” She still has concerns about the mental health of teens who spend too much time on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and recommends limiting that to an hour a day.
There’s no way yet to quantify the impact weeks or months of extra screen time could have, she warned. Kids’ minds aren’t the same as those of adults. “The advent of the smartphone and social media was already this vast uncontrolled experiment, and then we put this pandemic on top of it. We’re all kind of living like rats in a cage, so who knows what’s going to happen,” said Twenge.
No one is saying that becoming a couch potato is healthy. Getting sleep, fresh air and exercise improves your mental health and builds your immune system. And all of the nasty problems we discovered with apps, games and social media haven’t gone away, from misinformation to bullying.
But being stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic can actually give us some clarity about which uses make us feel better — and not.
“This isn’t the time to say all screens are bad,” said Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology professor at Hunter College in New York City. “This is the time to say, ‘What am I noticing about how technology supports my well-being — and how it gets in the way?’ And that’s going to be different for every individual.”
The mother of two says she’s thankful for video chatting, distance learning and even some social media right now, though she’s still suspicious of apps designed to become habit-forming. “There are things that fuel passive consumerism and going down the rabbit hole, and there are things that fuel creativity and more authentic connection,” she said.
San Francisco pediatrician Adam Davis’s 5- and 6-year-old kids have packed screen-time schedules. There are Zoom play dates, birthday parties, school check-ins, speech therapy appointments, calls with grandparents and even (somehow) soccer practice. To help the children keep up with their online social engagements, he and his wife, an intensive care unit nurse, set them up with their own iPads.
“Now my kids both have iPads, and there’s a part of that that breaks my heart,” Davis said.
But he knows that it’s a necessity now, especially since both he and his wife are working in health care during a pandemic.
“There’s some guilt involved because yeah, you want to be the better replacement [than a screen],” said Davis. “But I can’t always be the better replacement.”
For the record, the American Academy of Pediatrics says you shouldn’t just tally up total minutes kids spend looking at a screen. “When we talk about screen time, we’re really talking about entertainment screen time,” Ameenuddin said. Schoolwork doesn’t count. Nor do creative activities or video chats. Kids benefit from being able to see friends or family. Grown-ups do, too, like the millions logging on for regular “quarantine” happy hours.
Given that important nuance, the screen-time controls built into phones, tablets and computers look increasingly meaningless. Apple’s software, which the company encourages you to turn on when you set up a device, sends you a weekly tally of your total use compared to the week before — a blunt instrument if you’re now spending a lot of time learning or working on screens.
You can also set limits for certain types of activity that pop up after a time allotment you enter. But even these have a design flaw: Apple, by default, puts time spent on Facebook into the same time-limit bucket as video chatting with parents and grandparents.
Apple declined to comment.
Our view: If it’s a source of stress, just go ahead and turn off screen-time tracking. (Almost all the experts we spoke to had done so themselves.) On an iPhone go to Settings, then find Screen Time, then scroll to the bottom and tap Turn Off Screen Time.
There are tips for a healthy balance that still resonate in the time of the coronavirus. Having any rules in place, even if they slide away, can help families cope, Ameenuddin said. Keeping devices out of the bedroom at night can help everyone sleep better.
Consider picking one day per week where you just put the phone down. Tiffany Shlain, author of the book “24/6,” said her family has been unplugging for the Sabbath for a decade, and she finds the practice even more useful under stay-at-home orders where everyone’s daily use of screens has skyrocketed.
“We’re going through an extraordinary period in human history. And I want time to reflect,” said Shlain. “I feel like I’m just on and responding and connecting all this stuff and it’s too much.”
The advice that most rang true to us was a simple question from Jenny Radesky, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan: “What story do you want your kids to tell when this pandemic is over, when they talk to their grandkids?”
In other words: Are your screens helpful tools or just mind-control mechanisms?
Your kids’ coronavirus story might be about the time they were allowed to go a little feral, eating breakfast for lunch and dinner and watching Netflix in a pillow fort while mom worked nearby. For the parents lucky enough to have the bandwidth, it could be memories of doing art projects and watching nature documentaries instead of struggling to stick to a rigid online school schedule. For single people or couples living alone, it could be about reconnecting with dear friends and helping neighbors.
Minnesota writer Kate Seitz has loosened the rules to let her 3-year-old son and 8-year old-daughter use screens to watch a little TV, send video messages to grandparents and take online classes. She and her husband, Greg Seitz, have been going out of their way to make sure their daughter sees her friends regularly over video chats, to keep those relationships going.
Mostly, they’re trying to view the unusual situation as a chance to come together as a family. They say yes when the kids ask to play (“What’s five minutes?”), spend time outdoors and bake food for their neighbors who can’t go out.
Said Kate Seitz, “I think they’re going to remember it as a time of outreach and connection.”