When I was pregnant with my first child 11 years ago, I envisioned my future toddler being screen-free and the adolescent version of him having in-depth conversations with me at dinner about his day without the bluelight halo surrounding his face. But then… I became an actual parent.
I started strong. No screens before the age of 2 was semi-successful–making exceptions for when his abuela, my mother, would babysit or we went to visit family. Soon thereafter potty training gave us another excuse to indulge in screen time as a reward (I'm looking at you Elmo potty app). Before we knew it we had gone from brushing up on Spanish skills on Duolingo and having fun on Toca Boca at the age of 6 to talking about safety in the world of Roblox by the time he turned 8 years old. I struggled to learn the complexities of Roblox—which in essence is a metaverse with its own crypto currency (Robux) and an intro to NFTs—and how safe it actually was. I learned about privacy settings, kept open conversations with my kiddo, and even learned more than I imagined about some of the games like Work at Pizza Place and Fashion Frenzy.
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And when the world shut down due to COVID-19 in March of 2020 Roblox became a lifeline to friends. We scheduled tech playdates with friends like everyone else but after cajoling the kids to engage in awkward Zoom conversations, my friends and I figured out that having the kids parallel play while simultaneously FaceTiming worked better. Of course I was worried that screen time habits were getting out of hand, particularly as a Latina mom—Latinx and Black kids logged in more screen time than their white peers during pandemic according to this study—but hearing him laugh with his buddies as they wove in and out of games gave us a sense of normalcy during those worrisome times. Eventually a year into our pandemic haze my partner and I decided that at 9 years old it was time to get our son an iPhone of his very own. While I'm not quite sure we would have reached this decision without a pandemic at hand, we felt we had enough handle on our son's behaviors, who he was interacting with, and ultimately trusted him enough to tell us if anything felt inappropriate or made him uncomfortable. Equally important, we trusted he also treated others with respect.
It was fun for him at first—Messenger Kids entered the picture, and being able to text his grandparents and cousins all on his own was exciting—but at some point it became stressful for him. Suddenly conversations shifted from "my friend texted me!" to "how do I tell my friend I just don't want to play right now?" The attachment to his phone was real and became a point of contention between us. About nine months into having it I suggested he leave his phone home before leaving on a short trip from our home in Brooklyn to Upstate New York with friends on a short weekend trip in the beginning of summer 2021. He immersed himself in nature, played with his friends in person, and watched what we call the good screen (i.e. TV). He didn't seem to miss the games or the immediate access to others too much. And while I noticed he was calmer, I figured once we got back home it would be back to business as usual when it came to screens. But by our third screen-free weekend away at the end of that summer, we returned home and he never picked up his phone again. That was eight months ago. When I asked him what happened recently " he replied, "I don't know. Real life is cooler."
It turns out he's not the only one. Selena Gomez recently opened up to Good Morning America about her four-and-a-half-year social media hiatus. The 26-year-old Latina actress, singer, and entrepreneur said, "It has changed my life completely. I am happier, I am more present, I connect more with people."
But the reality is for kids, teens, and Gen Zers who never quite knew life without social media, going analog can be complicated. Especially after the last two years of maintaining relationships and forging identities online. "Sometimes I feel attached to social media and feel like I can't take a break," says 12-year-old Long Island native Isabella Fleites who went on to say that she does like to take a hiatus from social media here and there. "Taking breaks can be hard but I find myself happier when I'm off social media for some time and do other activities that I find fun like reading, painting, drawing, and even just hanging out and talking more with friends in person."
Heck, on Sunday, even Britney Spears declared to her over 41 million Instagram followers that she would be taking a break from social media.
So, now that our kids have been at peak screen time usage, is it possible they've hit their limit and will start looking beyond their screens for connection and entertainment?
Why Kids May Be Seeking Self-Imposed Social Media Breaks
While we're used to hearing about parents setting limits on their kids' screen time behavior, it seems that youth are actually the ones yearning for simpler times. If you visit the "flip phone" tag on TikTok for instance, you'll notice that it has garnered over 226 million viewsa strong indicator that Gen Z and Gen Alpha are craving time away from their smartphones. And while many may chalk this up to being just a Y2K accessory trend, for some it's a well-needed break from social platforms. Referring to her smartphone, 22-year-old Jacqueline Racich told Mashable,"I don't like how much time can be wasted and how it kills opportunities to be fully engaged and social with other people."
Common Sense's most recent study found that teens (13- to 18-year-olds) spend nearly an hour and a half daily using social media, but that only a third (34%) say they enjoy using it "a lot."
Mental health may also be a driving force for these self-imposed social media breaks, as we've seen with Selena Gomez who recently launched an online mental health community called Wonderkind. "I definitely have felt, like maybe I wasn't good enough or I should look a certain way," Gomez said in a recent interview with USA Today. And The rise of social media filters is only making this comparison game worse. Sixty-one percent of teens admitted that beauty filters only make them feel worse about their appearance.
"The ages between 5 years old and 21 years of age are key in a person's development where they explore their identity, and social media is a place where kids and teens are constantly consuming information about who they think they should be," says Yolanda Renteria, a Hispanic Licensed Professional Counselor. "Taking a break from social media can allow kids and teens to explore their natural abilities and interests without being overly worried about fitting in or doing things 'right.'"
When I asked 21-year-old Puerto Rican and Guatemalan Farmingdale college student Brian Morales (who recently took a social media break of his own while on vacation) if he thought he and his peers should take tech breaks he said, "I think breaks can be beneficial. Especially for people who feel the need to live up to the standard of other people or feel they need to compare themselves to others."
Why Parents May Be Interested in Imposing Social Media Breaks
While imposing a tech timeout may not be an option for all families—lack of child care or tracking kids to and from school, being amongst just a few of the reasons—the question about whether tech timeouts should be imposed is a tricky one. With kids as young as 8 years old spending more time than ever on screens and social media, parents are concerned about social media addiction and the impact on their mental health. And rightfully so with anxiety in kids and teens at an all- time high.
"Teens and tweens can benefit from a social media break if they are finding it overwhelming, if it's mainly generating negative emotions, or if social media is taking over important activities that are key to their mental health, such as sleeping, exercising, and spending quality time with family and friends," says Viviana Reverón, Director, Audience Engagement and Distribution at Common Sense Media.
But in these uncertain times social media has also been a saving grace for many kids. Finding communities they never would have had access to in-person is now at the tip of their fingers. And for kids who may struggle making friends in-person, creating online friendships can be a way for them to build peer-support.
"Instead of enforcing timeouts or other measures, start with an open conversation and create an agreement together that seems reasonable for both of you," says Reverón. "The key is finding balance: As long as they are living a healthy life –where sleeping, moving, learning, and spending quality time with their friends and family are not affected– there's no need to enforce anything."
Bottom line: We're All Doing Our Best and Every Family Will Make Different Choices
While I'm grateful that my kids are off social media platforms for the time being, I'm prepared that that could shift any day. The truth? I'm not sure how that conversation will go when it does. The pandemic continues to show us that so much is out of our hands. What we believe we can control or have a handle on can change at the blink of an eye. While it's easy to compare ourselves to other families or beat ourselves up over things like too much screen time or a less than gentle parenting moment, we're all just trying our best. And while it's easy to view tech and social media as the enemy, it can sometimes offer the support kids need and even create bonding moments between kids and parents. And while tech breaks can be good for our kids, Reverón says enforcing limits should be seen as a last resort if there's a complex situation that can't be solved in agreement with them. What matters most is that our kids feel safe and loved and we create moments where they are free to express themselves fully. Even if that does mean meeting them somewhere in the metaverse.