On Sunday, The New York Times published an article about the risks of sky-rocketing teenage device usage during quarantine — and as you might expect, they went straight for the guilty-parent touchstones. There are maudlin photos of a family ruined by gaming, and the quote “I’ve failed you as a father” comes in the second sentence. There are also curious comparisons to drug addiction (“There will be a period of epic withdrawal” after quarantine, one addiction expert warns) and vague claims about the impressionable nature of young brains.
Before you rush to cut off junior’s Playstation Plus subscription, it’s worth putting things in perspective. We’re in the middle of a worldwide crisis, and the last ten months have been hard on everyone. We’ve seen historic jumps in depression and substance abuse even among adults, and healthy escapes are increasingly hard to come by. Digital entertainment has gotten a lot of us through the past year in one piece. For many kids, it’s one of the few places to carry on a semi-normal social life, which is why many experts have emphasized a balanced approach rather than an outright cutoff. Digital interaction is an incredibly valuable thing, and dismissing it because of abstract screen panic is irresponsible.
The article briefly touches on online socializing, but saves it for a kind of ironic afterthought at the end. After cutting her son off from Xbox games for a few weeks, a parent notes, “it makes me feel badly when I try to restrict him. It’s his only socialization.” For a lot of kids, this is the whole point: online spaces like Fortnite are the only way to hang out with their friends. There is actual socializing happening here, and as long as in-person contact is a public health hazard, these are the only places it can happen. It’s important for kids to hang out with other kids, so cutting off screen time is actively isolating, damaging in ways that are far more concrete than screen time. The only reason to dismiss it is the lingering idea that online socializing somehow doesn’t count.
What we’re seeing has less to do with screen time and more to do with the age-old problems of teen social lives. There are lots of healthy and social things you can do online, just like there are unhealthy and isolating things you can do offline. Whether it happens on a screen just isn’t the primary issue. It’s fine to worry about unhealthy spaces online, whether it’s eating-disorder culture on Instagram or incel sewers on Reddit — but the problem with those spaces is that they’re unhealthy, not that they’re online. Casting the internet as the problem just confuses things, and encourages parents to cut off one of their kids’ few healthy social outlets.
On some level, I understand the anxiety here. Parents are allowed to be depressed and anxious too! There is a ton to be stressed about in the world right now, and watching your kid play Xbox through it all might make you feel like you’re watching Ed Westwick play holocube in Children of Men. I’m sure it’s alienating to watch your son play Fortnite all day, but if you’re that worried about losing touch, it might be time to pick up a controller and spend some time in their world.