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It started, last March, as an act of necessity – sticking the kids on iPads all day so I could make a hard deadline that fell six weeks into lockdown. There was no way around this; at five years old, my kids couldn’t manage their Zoom schedules or self-entertain for long without fighting, and I couldn’t break off every two minutes to help them. Overnight, kindergarten and after-school disappeared, to be replaced with the sedative of kids YouTube, and when the appeal of that started to wane, the more addictive and ruinous content on TikTok. If it was hideous, I told myself, it was an emergency. It wouldn’t be like this for ever.
A year later and in New York, at least, we’re in a radically different place. Next week my kids’ elementary school goes back full-time and although it lets out early – at 2pm – half of the city is now at least partially vaccinated, so most parents are comfortable hiring a sitter. (If they can find one, that is; indoor after-school programmes still seem risky to many, so the scramble is on for that already mythical creature, the 22-year-old sitter only looking for two hours work a day.) Things are, on the surface, starting to look vaguely like normal.
Except, of course, they’re not. Among the many new habits formed during the pandemic, a reliance on screens as babysitters may be one of the toughest to break. Over the course of the year, I have grown accustomed to cleaning the house, finishing work, folding the laundry and even – if my kids hit a solid addictive high on Minecraft – taking a nap, all without the cost or logistical planning of babysitting. I can put in a solid few hours at the park, safe in the knowledge that when we get home help in the form of two hours of back-to-back three-minute videos will keep everyone happy until dinner.
And so here we are, predictably, hurtling towards a 10-week summer holiday with every addictive behaviour on the list checked: kids who want to watch screens at the table, who don’t look up from their screens when addressed, who come home and after a cursory look in the fridge for a snack, head straight for a screen. There are fights about switching off the iPad at bedtime and about switching it on after breakfast. People have, occasionally, to be bribed to get off the sofa and go outside. Everyone is pale and unhealthy looking. And while they have preserved just enough of their concentration spans to read short books aimed at first graders, I doubt we’ll be finishing Harry Potter any time soon.
All of these problems are addressed, without irony, in copious online resources aimed at breaking your kids’ addiction. Solutions such as “mindfulness” loom large; that is, making a timetable for screen access and sticking to it. We are encouraged to watch with our kids, which would certainly put an axe through the YouTube videos (I forced them to ditch TikTok months ago by erasing the app and telling them Donald Trump had banned it) and also defeat the purpose of sticking them on screens in the first place. We are told to be much more involved in managing content to avoid age-inappropriate stuff getting through .(An indication, this morning, of my negligence in this area: I overheard one of my children call to the other, “Open up! FBI!”)
Perhaps these things will work. I’m willing to try them, although historically I’ve never liked lists, charts or any of the more rigid structures aimed at controlling one’s kids. And none of these measures deal with the real root of the problem, which is the question of my own screen addiction. If I permit my children to suck up content online, it is partially in the interests of allowing me to do the same. With or without them, I’m checking my phone every two minutes. I get furious when they interrupt a phone call. I’m constantly holding up a hand for them to wait while I text. When I point out how addicted they are, with justification they shoot back, “you’re addicted”.
Right now feels like the point of reckoning. Given the amount of work that gradual withdrawal appears to involve, my instinct is to pull the plug and go cold turkey. Last night, coincidentally, we read a book about a family of bears who were addicted to TV, until the mum unplugged it and forced a week of abstinence on them all. So that’s what we’re doing; a week of no screens starting today. The novelty of the ban is entertaining my kids, in particular the fact of it pertaining to me. “You can’t go on your phone today if you want to text one of your friends,” said my daughter at breakfast. “You can’t make any calls, or pick up any calls.” She looked thoroughly delighted, a state which surely won’t last. Wish us luck.
Source: The Guardian
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