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After pandemic free-for-all, parents struggle to reinstate screen-time rules

David Bressler and his kids Reed Romann and Evie Romann take a break from screens and head outside at Pier 26 in Manhattan.   (Jeenah Moon/For the  Washington Post)
David Bressler and his kids Reed Romann and Evie Romann take a break from screens and head outside at Pier 26 in Manhattan.  (Jeenah Moon/For the Washington Post)
By Heather Kelly Washington Post

The week after Rebecca Grant took away her kids’ video games for a month, after a year of relaxed pandemic rules, her 10-year-old son was livid. He gave her the silent treatment, mostly ignoring her except to spit out a hurtful “I don’t love you” one night at bedtime. The ban wasn’t an easy decision for Grant.

The 46-year-old mom of two from Fremont, Calif., did hours of research and read multiple books from parenting experts. She joined Facebook groups for families in similar situations and closely watched her children’s behavior, which had been worrisome for a while.

Still, she was caught off guard by the reaction. “He was really not taking it well,” Grant said. “In a way, it reinforced my decision. He’s just so attached to this (video games), he’s not rational.” After 15 months of various levels of shutdowns, families in the U.S. are trying to come out of a tech-filled haze for summer.

It’s a chance to swap out Xbox time for bike rides with friends or Zoom school for summer camp. But parents are discovering that subtracting screen time is much harder to do than adding it. They are facing resistance from kids accustomed to their freedom or just struggling to find alternatives to fill the time before a more normal fall school semester begins.

While businesses and child care centers are opening up as coronavirus infection rates slow down, early data shows that the amount of time consumers spend on their screens hasn’t fallen sharply. According to research firm Similarweb, there has been a 24-second drop in the average time spent per session on the top 100 websites.

During the pandemic, limits around screen time were raised or put on hold altogether with the blessing of many screen-time experts. Screens prevented millions of children from falling a year behind in school and allowed many parents to continue working in and out of the house. For kids unable to see friends, options such as messaging apps and video games gave them an essential tether to their old lives.

For all the good technology has done for kids over the past year, there were also unavoidable downsides. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics of patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network found a nearly 2% increase in obesity among children during the pandemic.

While some parents just want their kids to be social or active again, many have noticed personality and behavioral changes in their children. They’re irritable, argumentative and have poor focus. Some have become anxious or depressed or throw more tantrums and fly into rages.

Grant noticed moments when her kids weren’t acting like themselves. Like when her youngest son, 7, would burst into tears any time something small went wrong. And when her 10-year-old faked attending Zoom class so he could watch YouTube or got hypercompetitive and fought with a friend who was over playing video games.

“Having all that screen time all day for a whole year, their nervous system is really disregulated, and those symptoms need to be reversed,” said Victoria Dunckley, a child psychologist who studies the impact of screens on children and the author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain.” “All this overstimulation is putting them into a state of stress.”

To get screen time back under control, parents are trying different techniques. They’re betting on distractions, such as summer camp and family outings, to fill their time. Some are forcing their kids back outside on their own, while others are relying on screen-time controls to enforce a set number of hours of screen time a day.

Like many experts, Dunckley altered her advice to parents, taking into account their circumstances and telling them any screen-time changes were better than nothing. Going into this summer, more families are in a place to try what she says works best: a monthlong screen fast along with trips out of the house to get sunlight and physical activity to reset habits. Then, if they want, parents can reintroduce screens a little at a time to find out how much their kids can tolerate.

While some parents are recoiling from how much screen time they’ve allowed, others have found a new appreciation for the way it can help kids socialize and learn. Video games and social tools such as the chat app Discord became a lifeline for many isolated kids and adults while stuck at home, giving them a way to communicate and bond with friends, or even make new ones.

The popular concept of screen time – the idea that a kid’s exposure to technology should be tallied in hours – was never a big concern for David Bressler. The software engineer quit his job early in the pandemic to take over child care for his 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

“I really believe that I can bond with my kids over the tech. We can talk about it, I can talk about what they’re interested in,” says Bressler, 53, who lives with his family in New York City. “I’ve always been liberal with tech use but very involved with the way they use it because I believe it builds the bridge between us and the kids. It’s not a fear-driven approach where it’s a punishment or a reward.”

Still, he is frustrated with his son’s fondness for watching YouTube and understands that kids need to have alternatives to screens. He works to make sure they are outside as often as possible now that the city has opened up. He takes them to nearby parks to run off energy and to skateboarding classes.

Even a recent outing to a retail store was a thrilling field trip for the family, he says. Instead of spending their summer on devices, they’ll attend an outdoor camp complete with the classic camp fixings like pools, sports and arts and crafts.

Musician Jonathan Korty decided to start his own unofficial camp when he saw his three kids spending time swiping away the days on their devices in the spring of 2020. He packed them in his van and took them fishing at all the Marin County, Calif., beaches and lakes where he grew up catching surf perch, crabs and striped bass.

“I got really concerned for my kids, for their mental well-being during the pandemic,” Korty says. “All of a sudden, they were on the screen minimum six hours a day. It was really scary as a parent to see that my kids were getting sucked into this vortex.”

Other parents asked whether he could take their children, too, and by June 2020, he was running a full-fledged paid camp. Now he takes up to 13 kids every day and notices how much quieter and more reserved new campers are after a year at home. It doesn’t last. “The exposure to fishing and to the outdoors is the antidote. They start being more animated, smiling and talking more,” he says.

The American Camp Association says enrollment at summer camps is up this year, though it still won’t hit the pre-pandemic number of around 26 million kids. The group says 19.5 million campers skipped attending during the summer of 2020.

Camps are one logical way to break up the past year’s habits but are not an option for every family. Kids younger than 12 are still unable to get vaccinated, and many camps have fewer spots available because of coronavirus safety requirements and a shortage of camp staff. Some have also raised their prices to cover costs. For this summer, many parents are still juggling working with child care and just doing the best they can.

Carrie Mengelkoch, a mother of three in Gainesville, Fla., wants her kids to do what she did during her childhood summers – go outside, find other kids, be bored and ride bikes. But she has noticed there just aren’t many other children outside for them to even play with. Her kids ages 10, 13 and 15 are still on screens up to six hours a day, though she’ll negotiate an hour of Mario Kart for an hour outside.

“It’s been really hard to just take the device and say, ‘Go do something.’ I feel like they’ve all forgotten how to go outside and play, or how to entertain themselves without devices,” says Mengelkoch, who works from home for internet monitoring app Bark.

Dunckley tells parents that boredom is a normal, healthy process that stimulates creativity and helps kids initiate play on their own. It’s more difficult for kids to be bored next to an iPad.

As for Grant, she says her son was happier and more himself after a month of no video games. But when she reintroduced them, both kids started slipping back into their old habits.

She extended the video game ban indefinitely. “I decided I’m not going to put them back at all,” Grant says. “But they do keep asking about it.”

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