On Screen Time, Setting Limits and Uncertainty: An open letter to my third-grader
I’m writing to let you know I’ve registered your recent complaints about not getting enough screen time.
It’s nothing new for you to voice your objection to various rules around here, and for the most part I don’t flinch or falter when you do. The rules may seem arbitrary, but we have a great deal of evidence-based science to back most of them up. I don’t feel anxious, for example, when you complain about going to bed too early. I know you need sleep. Same goes for whining about being the only one who doesn’t get “gummies” in your lunch. (That’s an easy one. Those gummies may be made with real fruit juice flavor but they are not in fact fruit and have very little to do with fruit. That said, you get plenty of junk at other times during the day, probably way too much.)
Where I’ve been caught in a kind of sinkhole of uncertainty lately has to do with screen time.
It’s just really hard to know where to put limits or how much longer I can even reasonably impose them given that two and a half years from now you’ll be in middle school, traveling alone around the city, and really will “need” a phone. Already teachers are recommending homework apps. You’ve started your own activist website. Screens are—as everyone notes—increasingly inescapable. When I say “No screens at all” for such and such amount of time on the weekend, you frequently point out the hypocrisy of me checking my email and texts. “Oh that’s for work,” I explain. “Or that’s to see who is out at the playground.” Still, it makes the boundaries rather murky. Most evenings it's not reasonable to sit around telling ghost stories and playing acoustic guitar by candlelight.
I think your impression that you’re the only one of your friends not to have your own iPad may not be entirely accurate. But what’s more important than determining the exact habits of any one friend is for me to acknowledge that you’re right, it is starting to become clear like your digital media usage is more restricted than that of almost anyone we know.
One friend of yours plays Plants and Zombies every morning before school. Another doesn’t eat dinner with the family many nights because he is allowed to take snacks in his room and play on the iPad. I’ve seen kids watching videos on their parents’ phones in the playground. Certain friends of yours prefer playing Wi to anything else. Others holed up in their rooms. I watched you beg a friend to play a board game, to no avail. I’ve seen another friend of yours capriciously flip on the TV while you’re visiting. I know many households where each member has a laptop, preferring separate youtube videos to family movies.
Last week I called an indoor playroom and asked about the ages there. The woman who answered the phone said the three-year-old, that's Petra, would love it. They had Wi-Fi for older kids (seven and up). I laughed and said as long as you were allowed in at newly 9 you'd find plenty to do. And you did. You played and laughed in the ball pit and went down the slides and jumped in the bouncy house and raced around and did whatever kids are supposed to do. Play. In the real world. Moving around. Interacting with others or imagining scenes in your own head. You didn't give Wi-Fi a second thought. Why would you? You had a whole giant indoor playroom.
Yet even with all kinds of toys to play with, or giant yards to roam around, I routinely see friends of mine hand phones to kids who seem to be at loose ends. That worries me, because it seems like a self-defeating habit, a self-reinforcing one. The kid knows he or she will get the phone, which exerts a strong pull and is highly addictive, so he or she can't settle down into enjoying the toys or the yard. It's hard for adults to summon the will on our own to do something more "worthwhile" (paint, read, call a friend, take a walk) rather than plug in. Why would we expect a kid to manage that without external boundaries?
Maybe it's just luck, but maybe it's also because you don't need to summon the willpower to unplug that you're adept at being at loose ends. You love to read. You write (or at least start) a story a day. You make up badges for your neighborhood scouts. You sketch fruit characters. You draw imaginary maps. You like board games and Kung Fu and playing piano and writing songs. All these are really great things and I think they’ll serve you better and develop your further than additional screen time would but that may not be true. We don’t have the outcome data yet, because smartphones have only been in widespread use for the past seven years or so.
On the other hand, much has been published about the benefits of being bored. About the necessity of learning how to make your own fun. About the creativity that comes from having “nothing to do.” I don’t need to convince you of that, but I do feel I need to convince of you of something. Or maybe I need to convince myself.
I certainly don’t want you to be like the friend of my sister’s growing up plunked herself in front of MTV for hours at a time at our house because she didn’t have a TV. Or a friend of mine who raced to paw through our bags of Halloween candy (always stockpiled well into spring) because she wasn’t allowed to eat candy. In other words, I’d hate to make screen time so desirable that you fixate on it.
It’s just really…tricky. Even the American Academy of Pediatricians recently changed their previously strict guidelines to: It depends. They still recommend zero time for under 18-month toddlers. And they still set limits on digital media for entertainment. But as far as digital media in general, when it doesn’t interfere with other components of a healthy lifestyle (like getting enough sleep), they leave it up to the parents.
That’s me. And Dad.
And I won't speak for Dad (though I can tell you he sleeps much better and seems happier overall now that he leaves his phone in the kitchen charging at night) but I can tell you that there are a few years in your life when you can exist fully in the world, the one right in front of you. Anything you're missing now, a game you wish you could play, a show you wish you could watch, electronic bragging rights to which you don't have access, you can catch up on any of those at some future time. It is not now or never. It is not something that can't be undone. There will be many years to devote to gorging yourself on digital media, if that's what you choose to do.
But there is something that can't be undone.
That is now or never.
That is the chance to be exactly where you are. Without the nagging urgency to race home and find out how many virtual watermelons someone you've never met has sliced while you've been away.
The chance to play and create and imagine without the itch to grab for a screen, without the compulsive fear or curiosity about what someone else will think of what you just played or created or imagined. The chance to live without the white noise of those insistent, disembodied voices.
Your days living, as Thoreau might call them, "free and uncommitted," those are numbered. Afternoons that stretch out in every direction, where you have no idea what time it is, those are too.
The expansiveness of open-ended time, alone, with only the sound of your own thoughts, the terror of that and the beauty of and the wonder, that is nearly impossible to regain, once you've given it up. Hours where the grassy patch across the street can become a desert in Botswana, or the surface of the moon.
At some point when you're a young adult you're going to see a postcard or with a quote asking what you'll do "with your one wild and precious life." It's a line taken from a poem called "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver.
No one bothers much with the rest of the poem, but it is beautiful. In it the speaker says she doesn't know "how to pay attention/how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields." I want you to know--now at least, while you're only just newly 9-years-old--how to pay attention, how to kneel down in the grass, how to stroll through the fields.
That other realm, the one where you kneel in the grass, lose yourself in your capacity for wonder, is immeasurably splendid. It is an entire kingdom, a queendom, the "cathedral space" of childhood. It is sacred; its treasures can't be overstated.
That is what I am trying to protect. The limits on games and TV, the "unfair" restrictions, the outdated prescriptions, those are barricades against the dragon of digital media that would steal hours, weeks and years of all our wild and precious lives, my attempts, pathetic perhaps—increasingly isolated and desperate—to keep that fire-breathing, ravenous dragon at bay.