COVID-19 lockdowns in the United States have been in effect, to varying degrees, for nearly 10 months now, so it’s no surprise that everyone’s getting more time in front of video screens rather than going out and doing activities with friends and families. It’s a natural adjustment for people of all ages, and mostly a welcome one; imagine this same kind of crisis 25 years ago and having to keep yourself entertained with dial-up (if any) internet and 30-ish cable channels.
Not everyone is pleased, however, with how much time their kids are spending in front of video monitors. Hot on the beat of this new crisis that plagues American families is the New York Times, which published an article over the weekend titled, “Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers.” The story focuses primarily on the Reichert family of Boulder, Colo., whose 14-year-old son, James, “used to focus his free time on mountain biking and playing basketball” but now spends most of his available time playing games on his Xbox or phone. He sees the devices as the only way he can maintain social ties with his friends, but his father, John, is concerned that they’ve become too big a part of his son’s life.
The younger Reichert reportedly called his devices “his whole life” when he and his father argued about his excessive usage. That’s probably typical teen overexaggeration — how many of us can remember declaring “My life is over!” after an embarrassing incident or thinking that you’d be a fan of a particular singer forever when you were that age? — but it’s understandable that a parent would seek to try and calm his child after such an outburst.
In this case, though, it’s possible that a penchant for drama runs in the family. The elder Reichert told his son that “I’ve failed you as a father,” because he apparently seems to think that letting his son turn to video content to entertain himself during a lockdown represents some kind of parental deficiency. Not touched upon at any point in the article is how the father has been spending his spare time if he can’t go out these days, whether he’s watching Netflix or television or even reading, and whether he might deem his leisure-time activities as an equivalent “failure.”
The coup de grace comes at the end of the piece, when James’ mother, Kathleen Reichert, chimes in:
The family dog died on New Year’s Eve and James said that playing games with his friends helped him to not think about the loss. This concerned his mother, Kathleen Reichert, who felt that her son was escaping the emotions of real life.
“What are you going to do when you’re married and stressed? Tell your wife that you need to play Xbox?” she said to her son during the interview.
My response upon seeing that was … yes? If a video game will help you de-stress, then that’s what you should do. Obviously, hypothetical future James should talk it over with his wife (and kids, if he has any), but if that’s what he wants to do after talking, then … he should?
I think this points to the larger issue that the Reichert parents, and some of the researchers in the article, seem to have, and that is the notion that video games shouldn’t be a normal aspect of everyday life for adults. Given my lifestyle, I obviously disagree, and anyone who’s spent any significant time in or around the gaming industry knows that adults comprise a large percentage of gamers. As the 2021 report from Statista starts off, “Video gaming is no longer a hobby exclusively enjoyed by the young,” with just 21% of players being under the age of 18.
In the quote above, Mrs. Reichert doesn’t think that playing games on an Xbox is something an adult should do, and the researchers are similarly concerned that excessive screen time as teens could lead to “habituated behavior” as adults. Regarding game companies, “We’ve given them a captive audience: our children,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
I’ll agree that the way modern games are set up, with their various ways to lure in players and keep them there with free gifts and limited-time events, carry with them addictive qualities, and that’s not even taking things like loot boxes into account. The NYT piece mentions the increase in revenue that many games, such as Roblox, have experienced during the pandemic, a topic that we’ve covered before and that some companies have readily admitted as being a boon to business.
Does this mean that kids — and some adults — will be locked into looking at screens and eschewing real-life contact and activities after the pandemic ends (someday…)? I think that, taken as a whole, screen time will be greater going forward, but that’s a direction we’ve been going for years now, with the way digital entertainment options have been steadily increasing over the past two decades. The timetable might have been accelerated a bit over the past year, but I don’t think we’re headed for a WALL-E kind of future.
If you’re a parent and have been relaxing online rules to keep your kids from going insane during the pandemic, don’t beat yourself up about them spending more time with Fortnite than with you. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a novel idea, try playing with them.) The same also applies if you feel like you’re getting too “lazy” during these times, opting for cheap and easy entertainment over things like rigorous exercise or proper socializing. We’ll all have to do a lot of adjusting once things are back to normal, and I think you’ll find that you and your family will do the same.
And if you think there really is a problem with how much screen time your kids are having, try talking to them instead of the New York Times.