how much is too much?

Screen time or scream time?

Two words, every parent’s nightmare: screen time

How much screen time? When and what constitutes screen time? Does homework on the screen count toward screen time? What if it is educational technology? What if it is vapid YouTube videos? How can our children become computer literate if they don’t have time to “play” on the screen? How can our children learn derech eretz, to problem solve and to play, if they only watch others play on screen and do not play themselves?

It is the battle of the moment. No child psychologist, educator, rabbi and certainly NO parent feels good about their conclusions or suggestions about this matter.

In my own home, my husband and I refer to it as “scream time.” It is impossible. Sometimes, the more the kids scream, the more we feel pressured and say, “Yes, take 15 more minutes” or “No, you don’t need to get off.”  And we know that MORE screen time leads to MORE screams!  Screens are known to cause children and adults to feel more agitated, get less sleep and engage less in the relational world. In her book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” author and media scholar Sheryl Turkle rings the alarm that for all of us and especially young people with developing skills, screen time undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long recommended that children have no screen time at all before age two, and that older kids should have no more than two hours of screen time per day. Considering everything, pre or post pandemic that recommendation induces the unjust feelings of “bad parenting”! Studies show that our children can learn how to use a smartphones as early as four months. Wow! So we all know that they need less screen time, because if your family is anything like ours, screen time leads to “scream time.”

Screens literally create obstacles between our children and others and they are impacting how an entire generation of children learn and practice empathy.

I wish that this part of my article was the part where I solve the problem for all of us and give you a magic formula so our students can emerge as innovative leaders of the future and mensches who are aware of the social emotional repercussions of screen relationships. Here is my humble advice based on a seminar Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School hosted with Lori Getz, founder of Cyber Educational Consultants and mom of tween/teen girls. These are what I have gleaned as the non-negotiables:

  1. Always ask before using a screen. Yes, even to check if your Amazon book is arriving. Yes, even before doing homework. Yes, even before Facetime with friends. If it is a screen and you are on it, the Person In Charge (PIC- parent, babysitter, grandparent, etc.) knows that you are using it.
  2. Screens need to be used with open doors. If your room has a door, it needs to be open. If it doesn’t open-all the better!
  3. Technology use is a privilege, NOT a right, and children under 18 don’t own their own devices. All technological property belongs to the parent, not the child. You are borrowing my iPad, my iPod, and/or my desktop/laptop.
  4. There is NO SUCH THING AS PRIVACY ONLINE. Everything we do on the internet leaves a footprint that can be found long after it is “put out there.” And there are no innocent questions. If you are asked to take a “harmless” quiz about pets, it is because someone out there is fishing for clues and information that will grant them access to your passcodes, your wealth, your health, or even your physical location.

Or, if that is too hard to remember, here are the ABCs from Getz.

  1. Always ask (to use and to continue using)
  2. Bring a parent along (never isolated and always with parental permission)
  3. Check before change (you can’t finish a math assignment and then switch to Tik Tok without asking)

I don’t share these gleanings lightly. When we think about what is at our children’s fingertips at any given moment, it should feel like a serious responsibility that they are connected to the internet. Would we drop them off in London, and say to them, “Okay, you have two hours, just try to stay SAFE”? And the worst part is that brain science proves that all of the games they love the most stimulate their pleasure and reward centers to want to repeat the actions again and again. Parents are in my office telling me, as if I don’t realize, that the effect screens have on children seems like addiction. In sincere calls for help, they describe screen time like “crack” and they feel alone, like they are the only ones who feel this way. If we don’t set the proper boundaries now, we will have even more difficult psychological and psychiatric problems moving forward. More screen time leads to more anxiety, more isolation, more depression and more problems. And it is the worst kind of solution, because when children feel lonely or isolated or depressed, they BELIEVE from their brain science tricking them that screen time is the solution.

One last word here that might seem unexpected if you have read this far! My older sister, who successfully raised three boys into lovely, menschy young men, taught me early on that taking away the screen altogether creates another small danger. With screens as solutions, children don’t get to practice the necessary coping skills that are essential in this delicate dance. Especially in this time of the pandemic, when kids are isolated in “pods,” they might not get to enjoy many of the friendships that they took for granted before. If recommended by a counseling professional and if aligned with your personal family values, the “cold turkey” method with screens should be enforced. However, keep in mind that in most scenarios, especially right now, it could possibly be cutting students off from texting, group chats or FaceTime, which may be the social attention and connection our children may in fact need. The only way they can learn how to successfully navigate these challenges before college and/or leaving home is if they have a safe way to practice using devices under our care.

Let’s continue the conversation together. We are the first generation of parents raising what are known as “digital natives.” They certainly know their way around technology much better than we do. Let’s embrace our “first generation immigrant” status in the world of technology and cyberspace so that we can continue to be the parents that best guide our children to healthy lifestyles and relationships, engagement in education and physical activity. What is at stake is the wellbeing of all children and everyone in relationships with them. In other words, let’s continue to admit first to ourselves, and then to each other, that we all have a LOT more to learn about screen time. Then we can begin building screen time strategies that work best for our families and our schools. Hopefully this will transform our scream time into productive screen time that teaches limits, develops social skills and fosters connection.

Rabbi Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei is Head of School at Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School, a K-6 elementary in Encino, California.

Learn more about VBS Day School at vbsds.org.