How much screen time is too much? Asking for a friend. Ha, ha, no, I’m asking for me. Our kids used to have reasonable limits – about a half hour of video games on weeknights, about an hour or two on Fridays and Saturdays. My favorite was screen-free Sundays, where they knew not to even ask, there was no bickering about who got which device, or yelling at them to get off the screen for the 5th or 10th time when it was time for meals or homework. Instead, they occupied themselves with Legos, drawing, elaborate hand-drawn card games, imaginary play, and so on.
Now, of course, we have relaxed these rules. As in, the rules no longer exist. Perhaps new rules need to be written, but I have no idea where to start. My middle schooler is the first up in the mornings. When I come out to the living room, he is already plugged into his iPad and headphones, lying in his customary place on the couch, either texting with friends on Discord, or watching Minecraft videos. Sometimes, my 2nd grader is there, too, on another iPad and headphones, watching Minecraft videos. Then after breakfast, it’s back on the iPads for remote learning. And when it’s break time, they want to play video games either with each other or with friends. It’s hard to say no, because they have no other social contact with peers.
To break up the screen time for all of us, we instituted a family reading time as a mid-morning break, where we all read physical books for half an hour. We take a daily walk in the afternoon and we’ve managed a couple of family movie nights. But there are still hours of screen time in between. And I worry that it’ll rot their brains and ruin their eyes, that we’re failing them somehow.
In the various FB groups, parents are sharing free resources and educational offerings from the library, the children’s theatre group, dance instructors, zoos, museums, celebrities, and on and on. On a recent conference call with my 2nd grader’s teacher, another parent asked if we could crowdsource vetted, quality sites for enrichment. And I wondered, are their children actually doing all that stuff? Is there a lot of enrichment going on in all your houses? Cause mine are pretty much doing the minimum on their schoolwork and seem uninterested in learning new skills or exploring new topics. And while my husband and I try to do our full-time jobs remotely, we don’t have a lot time or energy to guide or persuade them during the workday.
But they do know a shit ton about Minecraft. The past couple of weeks, when they weren’t watching Minecraft videos or playing Minecraft, they were talking about it nearly nonstop with each other or reading their Minecraft books. Or, if they could get one of us to listen, they would monologue about the “the nether” or “the overworld” and the various neutral and hostile mobs that live there. During these sessions, I try to listen attentively, but my mind drifts as they tell me about how cave spiders are different from regular spiders, how iron ingots drop from certain creatures, and what you can craft from them, how the ultimate goal is to defeat the ender dragon at the end of the world. My role is not just to listen, but to occasionally ask questions that show I’m paying attention. Over the years, I’ve honed my ability to ask relevant questions while only half-absorbing the details. “Is a zombie pigman dangerous only at night?” “So how do you tame a wolf into a dog?” “What can you build with obsidian?” You get the idea. Even with my pseudo-attention, I’ve noticed the depth of their growing knowledge, the granularity of the details that they can recall with great facility. Our older son now says the highlight of his week is waiting for the preview videos of the upcoming Minecraft updates, details of which he eagerly shares with his younger brother.
When I can step back from my worry, I think, well, why wouldn’t they want to live in this virtual world? In Minecraft, the rules are clear and you can build things out of materials whose properties are known to you: you learn what you can and can’t transform the raw materials into and what kinds of attacks they can withstand. The dangers are known and visible, and through practice, you can learn to conquer them, defeat the hostile mobs, tame the animals, and learn how to use neutral mobs to your advantage. With different kinds of tools, block by block, you can make and remake your world. With more study, more practice, greater command of the details, the world of Minecraft makes more sense, not less.
Meanwhile, in the real world, things make little sense and there are no such certainties. Their world has contracted almost overnight, and they are left with parents who are distracted by work and anxiety and have no real answers about when we can return to all the activities from before. Pre-pandemic life is a distant dream. Friends, teachers, neighbors, even strangers are now experienced at a remove. Initially, my kids were interested in Netflix parties, teacher-led Google hangouts, and FaceTime playdates. But they don’t really seek these out anymore, preferring instead each other’s company, occupying the same virtual and actual spaces together. When they’re in the zone, my husband and I can hardly break into their mind meld of a conversation. They’re here, but not here.
The silver lining may be a deeper sibling bond. There’s less bickering than at the beginning of the shutdown. But I think what makes me uneasy, what runs underneath all the other uncertainties of this time (when will this end? what will life be like after? how will I feel sending them off to school for the first time?) is the unknown long term effects of this isolation on their mental and emotional health. They are so fortunate in so many ways, protected from the worst effects of the pandemic, and yet, as we all live through this national trauma, the question keeps bubbling up: what will this do to them? And not just them, but this whole generation of youth whose futures have been borrowed against again and again.
For now, Minecraft is their fortress of pillows, their safe imaginary space away from the ridiculous grown-ups, and that’s where our children are going to live for a while.