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How I Stopped Battling My Son Over Screen Time

Experts suggest effective screen time solutions.

Key points

  • Screen time usage among kids has nearly doubled since the pandemic started.
  • Uncertainty about COVID and remote learning can cause parents to feel anxious.
  • Coping mechanisms like radical acceptance can help alleviate the stress and reduce tension over screen time and other difficult situations.

The other day before school, my ten-year-old son played on his iPad for 30 minutes and wanted more.

“No,” I said.

He had to get ready for remote learning. I wanted to limit his screen time before he spent the day in front of a different screen.

I grabbed the iPad. He snatched it back and ran like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I chased him. We tussled like two kids squabbling in the sandbox.

“Give it to me!” I yelled.

“I need it!” he screamed.

The door slammed. I surrendered.

I scolded myself despite writing my last blog on why I won't say "should" to myself or my son. I should do a better job at limiting Marty’s screen time.

But instead of coming up with realistic solutions, I give in to another 20 minutes, regret it, and get angry.

 Becky Diamond
Adolescents reported spending nearly eight hours a day in front of a screen during the pandemic.
Source: Becky Diamond

Is this battle really over the iPad?

Each morning, I feel uneasy.

I wonder when I will catch COVID. Will Marty be in school tomorrow? Next week?

When I see a positive pink line on an at-home rapid test, how will I handle his screen time?

He used to play video games for about an hour a day. Now it’s a lot more.

According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, kids have nearly doubled their screen time during the pandemic, spending almost eight hours a day in front of a screen.

When I see Marty on the iPad, I think of everything he could be doing.

“What about going to the playground or reading a book?” I ask.

“I want to relax and watch KingDaddyDMAC and then play Roblox with friends,” he says.

Who is KingDaddyDMAC? What is an enchanted trident? Are Robux real dollars?

I miss The Hardy Boys.

I want the old world. Not a new universe of names, images, and games that I don’t understand.

So much is changing, and I am desperately clinging to what’s familiar at a time when everything feels foreign.

School on a screen. A pandemic that is endemic. Playdates that connect kids through plastic and polymer, not in person.

Sometimes Reality Stinks

 Becky Diamond
Marty on his computer for remote learning
Source: Becky Diamond

Ellen O’Donnell, a child psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said parents are struggling to make sense of this new world, where the only certainty is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

“Uncertainty creates anxiety,” she said. “There is so little we can predict. When we feel like we're losing control, the natural impulse is to try to take control back. It's our attempt to reign in our anxiety.”

That’s what I did on a recent vacation to Colorado that was anything but relaxing.

COVID cases were rising, and county officials implemented an indoor mask mandate.

Instead of enjoying my ski day, I was a mask-mandate enforcer.

I saw a woman holding a mask four inches in front of her face as she strolled through the store. Did she think that walking into her own aerosols would stop the spread?

“Excuse me,” I said. “Your mask needs to physically cover your mouth to prevent transmission.”

She apologized, but I couldn’t take it in. I wanted her to get angry so that I could get angry back.

Maybe that’s why we see so many people getting kicked off of airplanes.

Are we fighting over a few layers of synthetic material, or are we screaming about something else?

It made me think of how I feel when I get into a fight over screen time.

Reality stinks right now.

Accepting What Is, Isn’t Easy.

The world feels upside down. I’m so off-balance that I can’t find my footing, and I’ve slipped into an unhealthy space.

I live in a gap between two worlds: the fantasy of a regular life that I crave and a reality that I reject. Marty’s iPad makes me feel like a prisoner in that place.

I don't know how to break free.

I want to deny the new normal. But mental health experts like Jared O’Garro-Moore, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Columbia University, said that effort is exhausting and doesn’t work.

“Fighting against reality will not make things better,” O’Garro-Moore said. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering can be optional.”

Becky Diamond
Marty visiting with his grandparents before they were vaccinated.
Source: Becky Diamond

He advocates an approach called radical acceptance. It’s the ability to accept a situation, no matter how painful or difficult, as a way to cope.

O’Garro-Moore said that when we allow ourselves to feel and process uncomfortable emotions like fear, sadness, and the loss of control, our brains develop the ability to think flexibly.

We adapt and become more resilient.

The iPad Isn’t the Problem.

I had fixated on-screen time instead of focusing on my feelings.

I’m scared and sad. I feel a profound loss that I can't control.

I am taking the melatonin that I bought for my son. I wake up anxious about aerosols. And when Marty picks up his iPad, I feel the world crashing down.

But a one-pound, touch-screen tablet isn’t the cause of my stress. It’s a symptom.

My perspective on the iPad is shifting.

Ellen O’Donnell said that while screens come with some risk, “It’s less about the amount of time that a child is on screens and more about what they are doing.”

“Are parents playing with children? Are kids playing with friends?” she asked.

Either would be better than Marty playing alone.

Coming Up With Solutions That Make Sense

I’ve started to make different choices. I’m less afraid and more comfortable with the uncertainty swirling around me.

I’ve stocked up on Buckley’s cough syrup and kids’ Tylenol. I’m prepared for the pink line.

 Becky Diamond
A family game of Dino-opoly after some screen time
Source: Becky Diamond

I sat down with my husband and son, and we worked out a good-enough screen time schedule. Marty gets two hours a day and more on weekends. I set up a parental passcode, so I’m more in control of his usage.

We’re playing family games after dinner. Marty is reading more.

Learning to accept reality is enabling me to create a new one.

Changing My Mindset and Finding My Footing

The other day, I asked to play on the iPad with Marty, not expecting to enjoy it.

“This is Zooba!” he said with a smile.

It’s a last-person standing game with animal characters who have different personalities and fighting abilities.

Duke is a fierce lion whose roar stuns enemies. Larry is a nervous chameleon who can go invisible. Buck is a fearless bison who charges into battle.

“I feel like Duke today!” Marty said as we chose our fighters.

“Who do you think I am?” I asked.

“For a while, you seemed nervous like Larry, but now I think you’re tough - like Buck!”

We giggled our way through the game until his screen time limit interrupted us.

“Can we play a little more?” he asked.

I debated what to do—feeling like Buck was fun. I wanted to give in but not surrender.

“Fifteen more minutes,” I said, adding, “But let’s play off screens after that.”

“Great!” Marty said. “We can build a real-life Zooba character out of cardboard!”

 Becky Diamond
Marty feeling like a turtle, going in and out of his "shell."
Source: Becky Diamond

I found a giant box from a recent Amazon delivery.

“Let’s cut leg and armholes,” he said. “I want to be Shelly, the turtle.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to practice going in and out of my shell.”

Three Tips to Feel Less Out of Control

  1. Remind yourself that there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad. Jared O’Garro-Moore explained that when we have emotions that we don’t like, we try to change the way we feel. A healthier approach is to sit with the discomfort and then guide yourself to a better emotional space. In an article that O'Garro-Moore co-wrote on radical acceptance, he suggested turning your hands upwards with relaxed fingers and palms unclenched and open. This signals to the brain that the body is accepting reality.
  2. Build in blocks of time to be present with your family. Ellen O’Donnell said it helps the entire family when parents can set aside blocks of time with their kids to play games or even watch movies. Shared experiences can make everyone feel more grounded and settled. Kids can suggest activities that interest them.
  3. Let go of judgment. Negative judgment drains us and keeps us in a state of heightened anxiety and tension. Instead, practice perceiving things as they are, not how they “should” be. Focus on the problems that you can solve, not the situations you can’t control.