The unexpected joys of screentime in a pandemic

Virtually every night around 8 pm, I hear two teenage boys shouting. They’re yelling commands and occasionally letting expletives fly. The noise echoes all round our house.

And I love it.

This year has been a hard one for my teens. It’s been hard for all of us, but imagine living through your formative years of social learning in isolation and quarantine.

Not only is that lonely and depressing, but it’s potentially damaging (.pdf). When adolescence is a time for social interaction and building your identity as a social being, you need those opportunities.

And they are sorely lacking right now.

That’s why when my boys started gaming in real time with their out-of-state cousins every night, it made me happy.

There aren’t many opportunities for my kids to socialize right now. We’ve been on near lockdown due to COVID for months. I’m grateful that they go to school a few days a week in person. But many of the pivotal experiences for exploring identity and social learning are gone. There is no hanging out at someone’s house, no gathering at the pizza house one night, no sleepover after a basketball game. But there can be connection with others through technology.

A little over a year ago, this nightly gaming routine would have concerned me greatly. I had come to believe as a teacher and a mother that screentime was evil.

And while some aspects of schooling via computer devices does still concern me, I’ve now realized that not all screentime is bad. Particularly during a global pandemic, computers are necessary and valuable. Screentime in a pandemic can make provide human connection. Screentime in a pandemic can work. It just depends how it’s being used.

I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I’m perfectly okay with certain forms of screentime, now.

I know, I know! Let me make some distinctions.

I am careful that our kids are not using a screen to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. I encourage my kids to use technology and screens to connect with friends and family. Connection is necessary. We have enough isolation right now.

So I wonder about my previous beliefs. I’m curious about my old fears.

In the years before COVID, what made me fearful about kids and screentime?

Here are my hunches.

I think I was afraid that my kids would choose time with a screen over time with a person. I think that I worried that playing on a device would be more alluring than playing in the real world. And I suspect that I was afraid that my children would choose isolation over connection. Now I just wonder: has this pandemic forever changed us?

Let’s hope so.

I hope that when restrictions are lifted and it’s deemed safe enough, I will always choose connection. And I predict my teenagers will, too. Playing video games online with cousins is good enough for now, but it’s not the same as being together.

So what was I afraid of before? When we fear too much screentime?

Rachel Mark

Rachel Mark joins the Tarrant Institute as a Professional Development Coordinator in the southern part of Vermont. Prior to working with TIIE, Rachel was a middle school literacy and social studies teacher at Tarrant partner school Manchester Elementary-Middle. As a teacher, Rachel loved exploring new content and new methods with inquisitive young adolescents. She thinks middle schools are the most dynamic learning centers in the state. Rachel is passionate about supporting teachers and helping them overcome obstacles; it’s her mission to break down the barriers that teachers face in implementing change. She is interested in student reflection and portfolio based assessment, inquiry and project-based learning When she's not reading, researching and supporting teachers, Rachel loves to play. She balances her life shuttling three busy kids around by getting sweaty and zen - yoga, exercise, and being outdoors are how she recharges her metaphorical batteries.

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