‘Screen time’ has gone from sin to survival tool

Geoffrey A Fowler and Heather Kelly

THE WASHINGTON POST – We’re on Zoom calls six hours per day. The kids have gotten their own iPads. And no need to keep asking, Netflix – we’re definitely still watching.

But we should stop being hard on ourselves for staring at screens and start embracing how they’re helping us survive. And in this extraordinary moment, that’s just what the doctor ordered.

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.

Vergara joked he was “personally victimised” by a recent notification from Apple that his screen use had surged to 10 hours per day. “What do you expect from me? Get out of here, iPhone.”

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, said 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 Paediatrics decreed that kids aged two to five 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.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially encouraged people to play video games as a way to get us to stay at home.

And the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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 now struggling with isolation or depression, screens are a path for healing.

Every day at 9pm, 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 said its peak network traffic is up as much as 60 per cent in some regions.

Verizon said overall network traffic for video games is up 102 per cent .

Half of Americans think a home Internet outage would be a “very big” problem right now, according to the Pew Research Center.

We tried reaching out to 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 per cent.”

It’s not so much that phones and tablets are all good now.

The lesson, as family media advocacy organisation 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.