The Upside to Screen Time
Kids are expanding their tech savvy to connect and explore creatively.
By Jessica Grose
Jan. 20, 2021, 6:30 a.m. ET
My 8-year-old daughter started writing stories this year in Google Docs. They are thousands of words long, and my favorite one includes both a full brisket recipe and a murder mystery. She experiments with fonts, looks up synonyms and thinks about the plot even when she’s away from the computer.
I don’t think she would be doing any of this if not for our virtual pandemic year.
While I don’t want to sugarcoat the experience — so many children, especially children without access to computers and high-speed internet, are struggling — I do want to point out that there are upsides to online life, and some experts agree.
With the caveat that there is not reliable research on long-term outcomes of this grand experiment, one positive outcome is that our children may be more fluent, earlier, in the technology they need for the 21st century. “We all live our lives digitally, so we want these normal academic skills to be contextualized through a digital framework,” said Jordan Shapiro, an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and the author of “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.”
What this tech fluency means is not just that children are able to make cute slide shows and lead a videoconference by the time they’re 8. It also means that they may be able to pick up on social cues online and the nuances of texted communication in ways adults are just adjusting to now . They’re still learning social skills, Shapiro pointed out — they’re just learning them in a different way.
“I have the attitude of, ‘What can we learn from this?’” said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, who has done research on kids and digital media. Parents should try not to go straight to feelings of shame and guilt for the amount of time their children are spending on devices, Dr. Radesky said, since much of their screen time is out of our control, and families are in survival mode. Instead, “be open to the possibility that your kid may do something really fun or creative or unexpected that you can talk to them about, and you can help them be savvy citizens of this digital world,” she said.
You can use parental controls to prevent your kids from accessing inappropriate sites and content. But the most important thing to remember is to keep the lines of communication open with your children about what they see and do online. “If they think it’s a forbidden fruit and they sneak it, then there’s not open conversation and meaning-making around it,” Dr. Radesky said.
There are two things to look out for to help your children have a positive digital experience, Dr. Radesky said: connection and creativity. Video chats are ideal for connection, which children really need if they are not seeing friends in person. Dr. Radesky prefers video over audio, particularly for younger kids. “There’s fewer misunderstandings, and there’s a little bit more sharing of each other’s space or context,” she said.
As for creativity, look for fairly blank canvases that allow your children room to experiment and play — my kid’s writing is a great example, Dr. Radesky said. Many other parents have extolled both the creative and connective joys of certain interactive video games , as well.
We asked readers to share the best parts of their kids’ virtual experience, and they sent sweet and funny stories about connecting with far-flung pals and relatives, and playing with nearby friends over video chat. While it’s not what any of us might have chosen, these stories show that our children are both resilient and ingenious.
“My daughter organizes a virtual sleepover every Friday with her friends. It’s been a great way for them to connect, as some are in e-learning, some are home-schooling this year and some are in-person. They use Discord and get online around 6 p.m., play Roblox together and watch a movie in party mode on Disney+. After a long, lonely summer (she’s an only child), it brings me so much joy to hear shrieks and giggles coming from her room, both hers and her friends’.”
— Stephanie Kuenn, Chicago
“My 10-year-old and her BFF have a standing weekly Snapchat date, where they talk and use silly filters and ‘play’ together. She also has started a pen pal friendship with my college friend’s daughter, who is her age but lives on a farm in a different state. She writes and asks about her life, how she’s doing and shares the same about hers. It’s been really sweet. They had met once or twice as much younger kids, and it’s cute how they’ve made a bond of their own through letters during this time.”
— Amy Varga, Tualatin, Ore.
“My children do scavenger hunts via Zoom. They give each other clues, run around the house to find the object, run back to the computer. It’s entertaining and a fun way to connect with their cousins and friends."
— Nidal Khaja, Istanbul, Turkey
“In 2019, my 11-year-old daughter had the opportunity to study in Tartu, Estonia, for a semester and got to make lots of friends but didn’t keep in touch much when she got back, because she’d rather run around and play physically with her friends outside.
Fast forward to mid-2020 and with being online constantly, she was able to reconnect with her friends back in Tartu, and they have a blossoming friendship. Technology gave her back that much-needed human connection.”
— Arufeni Mnene Orawo, Nairobi, Kenya
“Our daughter will be 2 in early February. We usually see her grandparents at least a few times a year, even my husband’s parents who are on the opposite side of the country. They’ve canceled four trips out here this year. But we’ve been FaceTiming with them much more than we normally would. She now knows their names and asks us to call them regularly. They’re even in her ‘roll call,’ when she’s singing a song and inserts the names of all the people she knows. It’s sad that she can’t see them in person, but I feel like the pandemic has ensured she’s building an even stronger relationship with them, even from afar.”
— Cassie Blom, Aptos, Calif.
“Our 18-month-old son is our first child. Both of my parents are high risk and have only been able to interact with him virtually since March. During our last chat, my son could not stop kissing his granny on the face and at one point gave the iPad a hug. The love and connection are still there, even if virtually."
— Hillary Luther, Minneapolis