Connecting with children, and keeping them off their screens, during COVID

Steven Loeb · September 21, 2020 · Short URL:

Entrepreneurs share their journeys via "Becoming Us" a BetterHelp series

On Thursday, Vator and BetterHelp held their second Becoming Us session, a new program to help professionals build mental resilience through these surreal times filled with an unprecedented lockdown, lost opportunity, soul-searching protests and political unrest. As we transition to a new normal, we wanted to create a judgment-free place where people could share their unique journeys - struggles, hopes, etc. And in so doing, inspire others. 

This session, hosted by BetterHelp therapist Hilary Stover, and moderated by Vator CEO Bambi Francisco, centered around parenting during the COVID pandemic. While the last session focused on finding gratitude despite the frustrations, this one focused more on how to make sure children aren't becoming over-reliant on technology and screens, and ways to use this time for parents to connect with their kids.

Here are some of the stories shared by our audience members: 

(Our next session is on October 8, at 11 am-12:30 pm PT, with a focus on work-life balance. See the details here)

Mark Mahaney, Managing Director at RBC Capital Markets:

"Bambi, I liked your story about your advice to your kids and your statement to your kids that your job is not to make them happy but to make them wise. The line I use with my boys, and I've got four, from 13 to 20, my oldest is special needs, and my line to them is, 'If my job was to make you happy I'd be giving you Starbursts every morning and you don't see me doing that, do you?' We have a great relationship but I like your line about wanting to be you're trying to help them be wise, not happy.

It is hard to take electronics away from teenagers, so if somebody's got a great way to do that, that is damn hard to do. I've tried over the years, especially as they're deep in their teen years and, yes, they're on social media. The good thing is my middle two were probably on it too much, which turned my youngest off from social media, which is great, but now he's on, so that's a very hard thing. That's probably the hardest challenge I have. The idea of giving your kids each undivided attention is a wonderful thing. It's one of the very few silver linings in this COVID crisis, at least for me; I've traveled a lot less and that's great and I've had a lot more individual one-on-one time with them. The value of that undivided attention for each child, that's a wonderful thesis.

The last part is about modeling for the kids, if those kids see me with my phone at the table then it invites them to do it too. My rule in my house is no phones at the table, and that one I'm able to enforce. It's tough to keep up the phones out off bedrooms."

Mahaney also mentioned his regret that he didn't do more to limit his children's screen time when they were younger. 

"If I have one regret, and if you don't have regrets and you're a parent then I don't think you've really been a parent, you're always going to have regrets, that's my cop out there. I wish I had been tougher on my kids in terms of electronics. I did try from time to time; we had this rule: you've got to keep your electronics in the kitchen. I don't keep my phone next to me at the bedside. So, I'm trying to model the right thing but I guess since they're in their bedrooms that they don't really see me modeling since they're not looking at me with the phone not next to the bed," he said.

"I'm going to try now, we'll see if it works, I'm going to try to go to my 14 year old and say,  'you're keeping your phone in the kitchen. That's what I do, so you can do that too, son.' I've not actually done that and I've let the boys get phones relatively early on so maybe I've been a bad dad that way. I think they do use it too much, I do my best to model and I'm going to try to limit that exposure. Keeping it away from them at nighttime and putting it in the kitchen or the common room is a great idea." 

Later, Bambi asked him about how he's found joy with his kids during this time, and he talked about finding activities that they like to do and making sure to do it with them.

“Going to 7-11. I'm serious when I say that; you find something that they really enjoy doing. I've got two examples: I do take my oldest, my special needs child, on a walk with the dog every afternoon and he likes going to 7-11 and always picking up his cheese, pretzels and water, so we do that. And then the other one is Smallville. It's my 14 year old’s favorite TV series, and I'm now in season four of watching it with him. He loves it and so I love watching it too. I found something that each of them really wanted to do and what I really care about is spending time with them. Whatever they want to do, and it just so happens I enjoy watching Smallville and I like walking the dog and going by 7 -11. So, I find little things that they want to do, that they're interested in, and I'm happy to do it.”

Sharon Sterling, Managing Partner at Sterling Real Estate Recruiters:

“I really like the ideas that other people had, especially around spending time with the kids. Sometimes I run out of time at the end of the day to really think about it, so I love the idea of engaging the kids in those ideas, because you're right, they come up ideas I don’t even think of. I bet you they’d end up with something great, like yoga or stretching or gymnastics; I’d probably need to do some cartwheels before the end of the day, and that would make them really happy if they saw that.

We've really been struggling because it's harder for me to have the same boundaries now as we go through different parts of this isolation, though not complete isolation. And what I found is that there was a period during the summer where I was just done, and so they got a lot of screen time. They really love playing Roblox with their friends, and that's part social but it’s part gaming, and I let them do a lot of it. I was on my phone just as much, so I had my screen time and I sometimes picked up the phone and realized that 75 to 100 times a day is too much. I really shouldn't be picking up my phone that much. I also turned off the notifications and, I've got to tell you, the first day I did that, I was looking at the screen wondering where those little red dots were. I could not believe my little red dots were gone. I had become so addicted to my little red dots that I realized I was being manipulated. So, I turned it off for the kids recently too.

I have a 10 year old, going on 11, and as school started, we created a playgroup, so she had one-on-one social time with a group of four kids. And those kids have all had phones since third grade, my children don’t have phones. And the difference between the social skills of those kids, and the kids that don't have phones, there was a big difference. Now, there's some hormones, they're going through the pre-teen era, so there's some of that, but I realized that when I wasn't watching closely, that the kids were giving them insights on how to get a Gmail account, how to get how to get on YouTube, how to post on YouTube. I realized that I had created a playgroup that had given them insights that I wasn't on top of. So, part of my struggle has been that I know I need to cull their friends but I don't want them to avoid their friends completely. I want to give them the social skills to make the decisions, while not obviously exposing them too much to it. And also to give them boundaries around their creativeness. It’s kind of creative that you've figured out how to create your own Gmail account and you want to post your gymnastics on YouTube. It can be creative without totally tamping that down, but making sure they're safe.

The other piece I'm really concerned about is their social skills. I find that the kids that have phones earlier are just in more conflict. They just don't like a lot of the kids anymore. Kids are kind of messy and they're more fun and so they become very intolerant, very impatient, with each other. Having a playdate here once a week is really helpful because I get to see how they interact. But I would love some ideas, if anybody has any advice, on raising young kids in this time. They crave the Roblox time, they crave that social time, but they're also making friends, and they're making it without me being around.”  

Tammy Halladay, PACU RN at Centennial Hills Medical Center:

"I'm probably one of the rare people where my children actually didn't get a phone until they were going to college. So, for my older two, that was when they turned 17 or 16. It was tough because they had a lot of peer pressure, like, ‘why don't you have a phone?’ and on and on. And the other thing was, I didn't allow them to have social media until they were 18, because their brains weren't developed to be able to handle it. I knew just from seeing my other friends and their children struggling with social media and anxiety and depression, and how it completely correlates. If you look at studies, it does; the more increased social media, the more increased anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation and we're really seeing it now with the pandemic and these kids are getting on social media and feeling gloom and doom. So, I'm on the other side of it now and I can say that, yes, it was tough. The kids complained but now they actually thank me. Even when my oldest went to college, she was 17, she's like, ‘Come on, mom, I'm going to be 18 in three months. Can’t I just get Instagram?’ It was a hard, ‘no.’ I’m like, ‘Baby, you're just going to have to wait three months, then you can Instagram.’ When they were younger, they liked photography and all that kind of stuff, so I let them use my phone, they had their own account called Imagine Photography, and they could use it, but they weren't allowed to invite other people on it because I didn't want them to have that ‘ding!’ notification. If they were truly just interested in photography, this was just going to be their thing that they could explore. So, that's what we did as far as social media. 

As for screen time, my kids don't do screen time during the week. They can do 30 minutes to an hour on the weekend. But what this really did allow them to do is to explore their creativity. My kids crocheted, they painted, they wrote books, they started a business, they took me to Europe twice on baking cupcakes and cookies, so I'm very grateful that they didn’t have much screen time and, instead, developed a lot of creative skills. Hillary, I liked what you said about spending one-on-one time and something that I’ve done with my kids is going on dates with them. I have six children, so it's really hard to carve out some time, but even if it's just going to the grocery store or going to Starbucks or whatever and spending 30 minutes or one hour just asking them how they're doing and checking in with them.”

She also brought up what another panelists had said about different parenting styles and how that resonated with her.  

“Tom had mentioned authoritative, and permissive and authoritarian-style parenting. I minored in Child and Family Studies in college and that was something that really resonated to me. I'm not supposed to be their friend, I'm supposed to guide them and give them wisdom, like he said. But now that they're older, and they're in college, now we get to be best friends. And we get to share those types of things. It wasn't easy, I'll tell you, especially with the social media aspect and phones and all of that but it's rewarding in the end. These girls are so sweet: they wrote me letters and said, ‘Don't read it until you get on a plane,’ so the poor old lady that was sitting next to me when I’m like flooded with tears with these sweet letters but basically just thanking me for how I raised them. It talked about modeling and they know I'm not a perfect person, and I've messed up. We've had a lot of trials and tribulations and a recent divorce over the last year, and just through it all they really saw the optimism and the light, and I think that that resonated a lot with them and helped them during their difficult times too.” 

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Tammy Halladay

Joined Vator on

Medical Missionary, RN, Sonographer at Pregnancy Center, Veteran for the US Army Nurse Corp, Homeschooling mom of 6

Sharon Sterling

Joined Vator on

Managing Partner at Sterling Real Estate Recruiters

Hilary Stover

Joined Vator on

Hilary Stover is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and telemental health therapist in South Carolina working with clients on an individual and group basis through online therapy via the BetterHelp platform.

Mark Mahaney

Joined Vator on


Bambi Francisco Roizen

Joined Vator on

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.