Opinion | Parents, It’s Going to Be a Very Long January

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By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

As I interview parents for next week’s newsletter about how everyone is faring during the pandemic’s Omicron wave, there’s a recurring theme: renewed anxiety about screen time. Families across the globe are dealing with quarantines because of coronavirus exposures or infections. After the Chicago teachers’ union voted Tuesday not to report to school buildings over concerns about the city school district’s preparedness for Omicron, classes have been canceled for the past three days. Friday, for the second time this week, several school districts in the Washington, D.C., area were closed or experienced delayed openings because of snow. But with the start of the new year, fewer parents seem to seem to have the flexibility to take time off from work, and so any prior limits they’ve set about their kids’ TV-watching or video game-playing have sort of gone down the drain.

This is for sure happening in my house. My children watched what seemed like millions of hours of TV during the Christmas break, and when school resumed this week, at first we were successful in reverting to typical school-time rules: no TV until after dinner and homework is done, then unlimited TV until bedtime, which is usually one to two hours later.

But my younger daughter came home early from school yesterday claiming she felt nauseous, and proceeded to (a) eat two pieces of toast and (b) play Nintendo for three straight hours. Either it was a fleeting malady or she scammed us (her coronavirus rapid test was negative). But whatever the cause of her return home, there wasn’t really an alternative way for her to spend that time since her dad and I had work that couldn’t wait, and she isn’t old enough to read or entertain herself without a lot of parental involvement.

I went to the American Academy of Pediatrics (A.A.P.) website to see how badly we were whiffing on their family media rules, and there’s at least some flexibility in what it advises. There’s an interactive section of the site where you can create your own family media plan, and we do OK on some parts: We keep phones, tablets and such out of our kids’ room and away from the dining table. They’re not allowed to chat with anyone they don’t know.

But we don’t always “co-view,” a term A.A.P. uses for watching TV with your kids. It’s partly that we’re busy working, but also that the trashy tween shows they love are just about unwatchable. We occasionally persuade our kids to watch movies that we loved as children (getting them to watch the Winona Ryder version of “Little Women” was a recent coup), but that’s rare.

I confess I don’t feel that guilty about the state of screen time in our home right now. (Nor does my fellow Times Opinion newsletterer Jay Caspian Kang, who wrote a great piece this week for The Times Magazine about a 10-year-old YouTube star raking in millions of dollars playing with toys.) After all, many recommendations from pediatricians and other experts don’t take pandemics into account. Case in point: an excellent story by Anya Kamenetz that The Times ran in the summer of 2020 with the headline “I Was a Screen-Time Expert. Then the Coronavirus Happened.”

She acknowledges that much of the old advice that she gave now falls somewhere between unworkable and inapplicable, and she advises parents to focus on their kids’ feelings rather than obsessing about the precise number of hours spent on screens. As it becomes clearer that one byproduct of the pandemic is a children’s mental health crisis, Kamenetz’s advice is even more relevant.

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