It’s right after dawn on a Saturday. From a sofa in San Diego, my 13-year-old Facetimes with his best friend in Bend, Oregon. My 9-year-old is having a video chat with a friend in Santa Cruz; this child shares his screen of a football match taking place in the north of England. On our TV, my boys are watching a football game in London. A Premier League match in Manchester is broadcast on iPad. Whenever there is a particularly impressive goal, my sons take turns texting their friends in Berlin and San Francisco.
The second pandemic lockdown has arrived. And despite all the reporting about our children’s declining mental health, my sons are happy. Sometimes delusional as well.
While scientists have long warned parents that too much screen time can lead to depression, especially among young people, the pandemic has forced us all to weigh the emotional risks of isolation against the benefits of technological connections. Instead of falling victim to their predicament, my kids found a creative way to use technology to stay in touch with friends near and far through an unlikely source: fantasy football.
As it turned out, for all my good intentions, their only obstacle to happiness was me.
Here’s probably an unpopular opinion: I’m one of those moms who regulate my kids’ screen time. I would prefer them to do art or use their bodies. I eagerly quote the wisdom of a family therapist I know, Melissa Brohner Schneider, on applying firm technological limits to our children – and to ourselves. I give them advice from digital wellness educator Julia Storm on levels of stimulation and manipulative technology, encouraging them to get out and use their bodies.
But then the second lockdown in the pandemic arrived in California. We had exhausted all our pastry and macrame projects. The families of their friends would not allow children to hang as freely, and certainly not as often. In soccer practice, boys were isolated in 6-foot spaces to juggle the ball on their own, far too far away to trade beards with their teammates. The online school offered them zero chance for unregulated chat. My children had limited chances of interacting with people their age. Neither of us knew how we would spend a Zoom winter, when my oldest son Kai asked if they could make a fantasy football league.
At first, I was resistant. They didn’t need more excuses to be on screen. My friend, clinical social worker Adriana Guevara, acknowledged my frustrations, saying that we are all going through a difficult time right now. She referenced a study about soldiers returning from war and how people who spoke about their trauma and found release were able to move forward with their lives. “Children need the chance to express their negative energy creatively; they need a release.
“Okay,” I said, interrupting him, “they absolutely don’t need to learn to hope on other people’s physical abilities. I imagined my boys becoming gamblers and hanging out in the sports book in a Vegas casino, chain smoking and drinking watered down Jim Beam as they slapped a waitress’s buttocks with stranded cocktails.
“But it’s a way for us to connect with our friends,” Kai said on that first day.
“We’ll be able to compete like we do when we play, and keep social distancing,” added little Nikko, throwing an alleged cough into his arm to wink at his asthma.
“It will be good for them,” my husband said. “It’s not like they’re playing Fortnite 24/7. And we are going to create limits, ”he added, already installing his team on the Premier League app.
Within 24 hours of my slight nod that would change our entire pandemic experience, Kai had called friends from Berlin to the Bay Area to join in. During soccer training, Nikko invited his coach and teammates to join them, teaching them how to get a free account and create their own list. The boys texted their friends on Kai’s phone, emailed their friends’ parents, teachers and even their former babysitter and his partner, and at the end of the week , they had almost 20 people in their league.