Despite that, I’m going to offer myself up as a sacrificial lamb. I’m going to lay myself bare on the altar of parental judgement because I know I’m not alone.
I know I’m not alone because I continually find myself among parents trading advice and information like crack, probing to figure out if we’ve missed something, or, more often than not, just to know we aren’t alone.
Parents are drowning. Not just one or two, either. We’re talking whole ship, Titanic style
And it all has to do with screens.
Parenting tweens and teens in the age of screens is, to put it mildly, fucking exhausting. Remember when your kids were toddlers and you had to keep them in view to make sure they didn’t choke on a piece of Lego or a stray coin? Yeah, this is worse. It is a constant uphill battle that does not relent.
I’m going to stop some folks right here before the well-meaning advice comes in.
We have limits. We have rules. No mobile phones until age 12. No screens in the bedroom, or the dinner table, or in the car, or in restaurants. We have limits as to when and where. And you know what? Even with rules in place, I’m constantly policing them. If I turn my back for a minute? If I slip up for one, tiny second?
It’s back to square one.
Rules are great. But life is not a straight line. We all need to be flexible because we have different things to do, different schedules, etc. We have a no screens before X time on the weekends, but then it was summer break, or schedules got messy, or someone had a playdate, a sleepover, got sick, their friend across the globe was on RIGHT THEN, etc, etc.
Let me tell you something–if I tell my kids before they go to bed there are no screens until 9, those buggers will sleep until 8:59.
If I forget to tell them? They’re up at 6.
That is not right. And parents know that, we feel it in our collective parenting gut.
We are treading water here, and it’s exhausting. It is constant. It is obsessive.
And no one knows how to fix it.
Here’s another gem: Just take the screens away altogether. And let me tell you, we have been tempted and we actually have for periods of time. But here’s the thing about that solution. The experts? The pundits? They’re right: Technology’s not going away. If anything our society is becoming even more reliant on technology.
Mobile phones are how my teenager communicates with his friends. I’m going to take that away from him? The Xbox is how he maintains relationships with friends around the world. That’s great! I don’t want to take that away from him. These games like FortNite (grrrrrr) or Pokemon or streaks on SnapChat? They are a cultural touchstone for this generation.
As a parent, I may feel like they are complete and total waste of time. But I cannot, in good faith, completely exclude my children from communication with their friends or from cultural commonalities. Shutting my kids off from the things that their peers are talking about or doing? That brings its own set of dangers.
My kids behave better when there are no screens. Despite what they would say, all signs show they are happier without them. When we went on a two-week screen-less family vacation, it was great. We played cards. We talked. We watched The World Cup. Once they got over the withdrawal symptoms, it was smooth sailing. But that’s when we’re on vacation and there are museums or cities to explore, restaurants to eat at, water parks to enjoy, endless ice creams and cans of Coke.
When you’re home, it’s a different story all together.
I get it. When my kids are tucked into their devices, I know where they are. They’re safe–physically. I don’t have to deal with them whining or complaining. I get it. It’s EASY. It’s why so many of us find ourselves veering down that slippery slope. An hour turns into two. None during the week turns into one day a week and suddenly it’s three.
But listen to me: when you hear parents casually talking about “once they get over the shock” or using words like withdrawal as I did above?
It’s not right.
When you hear parent after parent talk about their kid’s behavior when you limit their screen use, or tell them to stop, or take it away? When you’ve got tweens or teens who are throwing tantrums or crying because you’ve taken away a phone or an Xbox?
It’s not right.
When your kid is just going through the motions, rushing thorough homework, or dinner, or sports practice, or school, or whatever, just so they can get home and play Fortnite?
It’s not right.
That’s not playing a video game or chatting with friends. That’s addictive behavior.
My kids are, for the most part, easy kids. There are no underlying issues, no out of the ordinary challenges. When they’ve been exposed to too much screen time, they are, in a word, assholes. Seriously. Their behavior alters, and not for the better.
I’ve heard the same thing from countless parents.
And there’s that voice again screaming to us: this isn’t right. Something is not right about this.
We manage the behavior because there’s that expert advice again: Technology is here to stay, teach your children how to use it wisely.
You know what? That’s the shittiest piece of advice ever. You know why? Because kids cannot use technology wisely. I know this because most adults can’t, and yet we expect kids to be able to police themselves? Oh, maybe there are some kids out there who play an hour of Fortnite, get bored, and then turn it off to go do some coloring.
My kids are not those kids.
Tweens and teens should have no more than two hours a day of screen time.
If I tried to limit my teenager’s screen use to two hours a day I would literally have to 1. Follow him around all day or 2. Physically remove the phone. Also, he’s fourteen years old. He should have some say in how he spends his down time, when he talks to his friends, etc. I get that. It’s just that everything else is rushed to get to that ‘downtime’.
When your kid is on a phone, you can’t tell they are actively socializing or communicating or playing a game, or mindlessly watching endless YouTube videos. And don’t get me started on YouTube.
Turn off the WiFi.
Really? Most places are wired for 4G, they just hook into someone else’s. But also, my kids need WiFi to do their homework. The teen’s is all done on his laptop. You think I’m going to stand over him for an hour to two hours a day to make sure he’s not toggling back and forth between screens while he does his homework?
One, no. Two, no. That level of monitoring is not realistic with a teen. Nor should it be. What kind of message am I sending about trust if I’m looking over his shoulder all the time?
And yet, if I don’t?
You want to know a dirty secret? We don’t even consider television a screen in my house any more. That’s the level we’ve come to. You want to watch a show on TV? At least it likely has a plot and a story arc. Unlike the empty calories of YouTube. (See, you got me started.)
There’s some great stuff on YouTube. My kids aren’t watching it.
To those who say, parents should monitor what their kids are watching. Do you have kids? Are they tweens and teens? My kids are at an age where they are not in my sight all day every day. The younger one doesn’t even have a phone. That doesn’t stop him from plonking himself down next to anyone who does so he can watch someone else watch vacuous YouTube celebrities endlessly make snarky comments and do stupid things.
It is endless. It is exhausting. We are sinking.
If you want to know how the war is truly going, don’t ask the experts. Ask the ones fighting on the front lines. I’m in the front lines. I’m dug in. So are the parents I know.
And we are losing.
So here’s me sending out a parental distress signal. I know I’m not alone.