Is five hours of screen time really too much? Media, parenting, and working from home during Covid-19

Working from Home: Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production

All around the world, parents are unexpectedly facing the challenges of working from home while taking care of their children, creating a tricky balance. This has meant learning new skills and experiences; muting your computer during Zoom calls just as a scream erupts from another room, writing one email in five intermittent bursts, using nap time as the most productive 90 minutes of your entire career, slyly googling answers to schoolwork so that your child doesn’t realize you have no idea what the capital of Ghana is (it’s Accra, btw), etc. But thankfully we’re not in this alone! The universe has provided us with some amazing parenting tools like the iPad, Amazon and the Disney vault courtesy of Disney+.

Media, of course, has always had an important role in parenting, but the situation today has imparted even more meaning into how families use it. Media can be our best ally. It helps us keep kids entertained (silent and distracted), keeps them connected to their normal lives (the magical world of virtual daycare and classrooms), offers a place for parents to vent (passive-aggressive posts about their child’s latest ridiculous behavior), and find our own escape from this crazy and unprecedented time (two words: Tiger. King).

Parents, after accepting the reality of what it means to be on lockdown and have quickly become really good at post-rationalizing—breaking some of our own rules. 30 minutes of screen time a month ago somehow became three hours today. Because, of course, FaceTime doesn’t count as 'screen time,' it’s just 'modern babysitting.'

We’ve changed the audio settings on any cartoon to turn it into a foreign language class. We’ve used our half-remembered Hamlet to explain the family dynamics between Scar and Mufasa so the kids can watch The Lion King twice in a row without being fully traumatized. We’re making sure they become good humans through the moral guidance of Daniel Tiger and obviously, everyone needs to know the story of Rapunzel as narrated by Mandy Moore. And then there’s homeschool—who knew Miss Megan and her Kindergarten Camp would provide the break we needed to get through morning email?

We play this justification game because we feel the need to assuage our inner critic, the one who constantly berates us that an easy solution is a cop out. But these have become times when the goal is not complete success, but complete sanity. What would we do without the few minutes of peace technology can offer parents? Who can blame a tired father for letting Sonos play “Wheels on the Bus” on repeat after personally singing it 23 times that day?

While there’s nothing new with kids watching some cartoons and Disney movies, Covid-19 did create a generation of kids savvy at video conferencing as early as 18 months old. Kids follow Zoom singalongs and story time sessions with a level of focus and dedication you rarely see during work conference calls, and an ability to adjust call options you usually need to call your IT department for. But having children connect with their own peers and keeping to a familiar structure has more value than an arbitrary number of allocated digital minutes. Playdates with best friends over FaceTime might have seemed crazy just a few short weeks ago, but now they’re an essential way to help our kids maintain their own relationships—the childhood version of the Zoom Happy Hour.

For parents, social media can be great for catharsis. I’ve become addicted to friends’ Instagram Stories for a daily dose of “I’m not alone in this.” Some Microsoft Teams conversations have shifted from business insights to parenting horror stories or trading of tips on just how to get through. And overall, the Internet meme-factory is in full gear. It’s as if parents all around the world have finally discovered what the Internet is really about. Imgur is finally mainstream.

Media is more meaningful to all at this moment in history, but it takes on a special meaning for parents caught in the balancing act of parenting and working from home. Those of us who are used to, in comedian Ali Wong’s words, “working very hard to not take care of our child ourselves,” are now in the delicate position of doing both, and flexibility is vital. Almost as vital as Wong’s Netflix specials.

Neala Brown is the global head of Mx Measurement for Havas Media Group

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