Hey Parents, Screen Time Isn't the Problem
When we drive to Pennsylvania in the summers, with my daughters locked in to their screens for the miles and miles of cornfields and blasted-out hillsides, we drive there to visit the relatives we left behind. In the parlance of our times, we take these trips for face-to-face, or F2F, contact. For my 7-year-old Maeve to rustle her Gram's many German shepherds, for her 3-year-old sister, Phoebe, to climb on her Grandpa Foo's back, for the both of them to fall into a real pile with their Uncle Ian and Aunt Lolo. But, for the vast majority of the year, Maeve and Phoebe and their Philly family talk on FaceTime.
It's very difficult to understate the degree to which I specifically did not believe that video phone technology would ever be a thing. Like a lot of aspirationally pretentious suburban teenagers, I went through a period of twee Luddism in the late 1990s. Inspired by the Beastie Boys, I bought dozens of vinyl LPs for 99 cents a piece, I made a cut-and-paste zine about indie music called The Electric Soul Potato[e] with my friends, I asked for and received a manual typewriter for Christmas. These were the broad trends of the thrifted-cardigan-over-gas-station-attendant-shirt-wearing white boys in my demographic, but my analog aesthetic was, for a time, animated by a genuine pessimism about technology in general. Partially as a stylistic choice, and partially as a real belief, I remember very casually talking about the silliness of striving toward things like voice activation, digital navigation, and, importantly, video phones. In the '90s, my vision of the future was one in which millions of dollars would be spent trying to perfect marginally useful Jetsons-inspired technology that would never ever really work.
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It only now occurs to me that this popular culture of tech backlash, of which I was a teen devotee, was itself a phenomenon of the screen time era. The phrase screen time emerged as a meme to scare parents about the dangers of Too Much TV for little kids. The term, in its current form, originates in a 1991 Mother Jones article by the opinion columnist Tom Engelhardt. Previously, screen time had referred to how much time an actor appeared onscreen in TV and movies. But Engelhardt, in "The Primal Screen," reversed the term's meaning. Screen time wasn't a measure of what happened on the screen; it was a metric evaluating us.
In the intervening decades, that definition has become definitive. For parents, guesstimating and regulating kids' screen time is now a huge part of the job. Whether taking a hardline or agnostic position, it's become a central facet of modern childrearing, a choice like deciding whether to raise kids religious or when to allow them to get their ears pierced. How much is too much? What are they watching when I'm not paying attention? What might they see? Who might see them? We worry about what our kids watch; we worry about what might be in our screens watching them.
The teenagers who, like me, brought their antique Olivetti typewriters to coffee shops to write Vonnegut-esque short stories are the same teenagers whose youths were the first to be governed by this particular parenting movement. We were the kids who were told screens were bad for them, who had TV banned, or who overindulged in response. Though I doubt anybody in this group would have listed obedience to parents as a particularly high priority, it strikes me that at least a part of this allergic reaction to slick digital technology--technology that Apple was making slicker and slicker by the day in ways that would eventually tempt us away from our tech-free purity--was about having grown up within a cultural moment defined by the villainization of screens. Maturity means the ability to discern.
But my teenage self was wrong, it turns out. FaceTime, at least, works. Or, rather, the technology of FaceTime works. The user experience can be a little buggy.
There have been several stages to the girls' use of FaceTime. The first stage was the easiest. The child--Maeve in this case--is a small, swaddled dumpling. My partner Mel could call her mom or her sister and, magically, have an ordinary conversation, with a live feed of Maeve onscreen instead of her own face. What if I told you that you could talk to your own daughter but see only an uninterrupted video of your infant granddaughter? The future is now! This is the excellent deal that Gram cut in those early days. But then Maeve got squirmy, a troubling wrinkle in our FaceTime dynamic: We couldn't keep her onscreen.
From there, Maeve ascended to late toddlerhood. She was still squirmy, but with better motor skills and a pliant, inquisitive mind. At that point, the paradigm shift occurred: We just fucking handed her the phone. Her framing instinct was not fully developed just yet, so often these images consisted of the top of her forehead in the bottom of the screen, a roving shot of our ceiling fan, or perhaps just a close-up of her nostril. But, without indulging in too much ageism here, her grandparents were not all that much better. This was especially true of her GG Pap, my grandfather, who was still around and always eager to pick up his iPhone when Maeve called. (Even now, years after he passed, his contact is listed in my phone as "iGrandpa.") One of the most enduring images I can conjure of him is of a 4-year-old Maeve gabbing jubilantly about nursery school while holding a phone that showed a screen image of my Grandpa's right eye with an inset image of Maeve's right eye. Looking out, looking in.
With an older, wiser, calmer Maeve, and a fidgety toddler in Phoebe, the FaceTime situation has become somewhat untenable again. Mel holds the phone as the two children rocket around each other. It's mostly Mel in the frame, looking apologetically at her conversation partner, hoping one of the children inadvertently zips into view or spontaneously discovers the concept of guilt. Otherwise, the image our relatives see in Philadelphia is mostly akin to those deep space images that tell us about what we can't see by showing us how what we can see behaves. This is what it's like, our FaceTime screen tells them. This is how it feels.
In other words, FaceTime has never really not been stressful. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been a miracle of sorts. Its mere existence closes distance, the promise of it does a lot of emotional work, even when the actual experience is wanting. The payoff is answering the phone and seeing the person you love. The payoff is making the call at all, anticipating that face. Its utility lives in that split second; everything else is gravy. It isn't a replacement for contact. The screen is not usurping physical closeness. It will never do that. It could never do that. But it can offer something else, something in the neighborhood. Perhaps because we've learned to build these relationships with screens--with characters we love or hate, with events we've anticipated--we know how to have intimacy through them. It isn't the same as person-to-person, but it isn't nothing, it isn't cheap, it isn't degraded. It is simply something else on its own.
The first Covid lockdowns began during Maeve's spring break from nursery school. We never sent her back. They put together some cursory online meetups over the remaining several weeks of school, but it's not like they had any curriculum they needed to finish. The kids all squirmed in their seats while the teachers sang songs for half an hour, and then everyone logged off.
The following fall, though, Maeve started pre-K at a real elementary school, and that school, we are grateful, was fully online. We pulled up to a drive-in circuit in the school's parking lot that August, picked up a box of worksheets and supplies, and checked out Maeve's own personal iPad, provided by St. Louis Public Schools with a chunky little purple case. Her class met every day on a byzantine schedule laid out--mostly accurately--in a video chat app called Microsoft Teams. They'd meet first thing in the morning for songs and alphabet and show-and-tells and several rounds of explanation about how to mute themselves, then log off for a worksheet, then back on for the subject of the day, then off for lunch and rest, then back for science or reading, then the day was done. Because Mel and I, both professors, were snowed under managing our own online courses, my mom took over as something like Maeve's schoolday concierge. She'd sit next to her when she was logged in--just out of frame--helping to keep her focused. She'd usher her in and out of virtual rooms. She'd help her with her worksheets when she needed it. She was Maeve's preschool teacher, and she was wonderful at it. Microsoft Teams was not a replacement for school, but it gave Maeve, and my mom, enough to work with.
In the spring, when the school doors finally opened, Maeve returned. There'd been a lot of doomsaying about learning loss due to online education. And there's no doubt that there was indeed something lost between these kids and their teachers that couldn't be communicated on an iPad.
But it's also true that nothing truly bad that happened to these kids happened because of a screen. A new virus spiraled across the planet. Family members, friends, teachers died. Businesses shut down. Of the ones that stayed open, some allowed employees to work from home, but some employees were deemed too "essential" to have that luxury, that protection. The federal government chose to prioritize bars and restaurants over schools that first summer, and so schools shut down, teachers quit. Parents and educators were stretched to breaking points because a system nominally designed to support them simply chose not to.
We were lucky, we know. Kids who were handed screens without the family and school infrastructure we had were handed nothing, essentially. The screens did not save everybody, but that was never a thing that was in their power. As with masks, it's easy for people who feel the world slipping out of their control--as we all did--to imagine that it was the (insufficient, frustrating, buggy) solution to the problem that deserved the blame. Maeve's screen, just like her mask, didn't do anything but help keep her and her friends safe for months and months. The world collapsed on these kids, but screens, it turns out, did not.
And that was okay. Screen time is not nearly as alienating a communication medium for Maeve and her friends as it is for all the middle-aged pundits who decried virtual school as an abomination. There are things these kids want that are physical and material and "in person," but they are growing up in a universe where screens are capable of doing things like this, and where intimacies exchanged in passing on them are not second-order or fundamentally degraded.
The moral panic about virtual learning is about what all the other moral panics are about: growing up. This is a growing up that's not just worrisome because of the loss of time and childlike innocence and closeness it implies. What does it mean for our children to grow up different from us? Different technologies, different classrooms, different traumas--the things that seemed real to me when I was growing up might not seem real to them. The things that seem real to them seem unreal, ghostly, to me. To raise kids in this particular screen time is to feel the constant, terrifying tug of one's own obsolescence.
Maeve finished kindergarten in person. Her year there was back and forth--some virtual switches, some mask-on/mask-off guidance, only one outbreak, from which we were mercifully spared. Somewhere in there, she learned to read at a high level, and she does so avidly. Mel--who was an early and avid reader like Maeve is--had often talked about the small, sweet dream that she'd one day get to sit in a room with her young daughter as they each silently read their own books in each other's presence. That dream is real now, and it's in part because of the screens--and the humans like my mom and like Maeve's pre-K teacher who kept them in the right place--that precisely prevented her learning from being lost.
Early in the pandemic, we got a retro, corded landline telephone in our living room. It's Maeve who uses it most. We gave her a list of phone numbers--all her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, a few other folks--and the rule is that she can dial any of those numbers whenever she wants. She sits in our little green armchair, calls up her Gram and regales her with tales of the day, calls up her Uncle Ian and asks him about the bear stuffies he keeps in his work-from-home office, calls up her Aunt Lolo and reads her complete recipes from a cookbook for some reason.
She's not addicted to screens; they didn't take anything from her. The face time provided by FaceTime isn't enough, but neither is the voice time provided by the phone. Screens weren't ever going to fix that. We shouldn't have asked them to. The problems we have with screens are often problems we have with the world screens exist to mediate and capture, imperfectly, for us. They can't close the distance, they can't bring us together in the same room, they can't fix a pandemic or teach a child how to read. Screen time can't do it. There isn't enough time; no time is enough.
This essay is adapted from Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak, published in May by NYU Press.