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Socialization on Screen

How my homeschooled kids’ screentime & social life evolved during the pandemic shift

When the pandemic hit, we were an active family in a thriving homeschool community. My sons were 10 and 6. Our homeschool style was, and still is, eclectic and unschooly. We had weekly hikes with homeschool friends, took classes at all the local science centers, were part of arts and music co-ops, took frequent road trips to historical sites and city museums, and spent a ridiculous amount of time at the library.

At home, we practiced math and read a lot of books. The kids watched a few vetted shows over and over; we watched nature documentaries and Friday night movies as a family. They had recently gotten into Minecraft, but we kept that to a minimum. In short, we had limits on screen time.

Quarantine took a toll on our social life, as it did for everyone. It’s a fallacy that homeschooled kids lack socialization. In fact, most lead extremely rich social lives, interacting with peers, kids of all ages and adults through activities, meet-ups, and co-ops. Suddenly being stuck at home for days turning into months was disorienting.

We encouraged the kids to videochat with friends online but it was often a disaster. My older son flat out refused. My younger son would run around the house with my phone making faces and holding it the wrong way to show off his lego creations, more excited about interacting with a screen than a person.

The one thing they were both interested in was playing Minecraft with a friend or two. We let it be. As the days went on, their usual 1–2 hours of screen time per day turned into six or more. Admittedly, sometimes 10. Or more. They started to reconnect with friends we met traveling who live halfway across the country, and their uncle who also played Minecraft. Through their homeschool friends they met another local friend online who, though they started playing Minecraft with her almost every day, they had never met in person.

Many of the homeschool families we used to spend time with were low-tech, low screentime. I asked my older son why he didn’t want to videochat with them, at least to keep up with the friendships. He explained it to me like this: “I don’t want to just talk to someone, I want to play with them. When we get together in person, we don’t just sit around and talk. We play, we make up games, we do things, we figure things out, we work together. I want the same thing online.”

I understood him. I had seen for months how he and his friends collaborated in Minecraft. They worked their way through maps with great excitement and concentration. They problem solved, working quickly. And the best part was that they were learning critical social skills that are often learned when playing kid-created and managed games on their own. Listening in, I was often impressed by the dynamic amongst their small group of 4–5 players. They showed kindness, encouragement and empathy towards each other. I witnessed incredible social-emotional growth during this period, particularly in my 6 year old. I was always there to jump in quickly if things were going in the wrong direction. They learned quickly the ways to behave towards others online.

My youngest made friends with an aforementioned local friend we had yet to meet. Though she is 3 years older, and autistic, their rhythm and interactions online were always kind and appropriate. My little one learned how to say “no thank you” or “I’m going to play by myself now, but I will play with you later”. He learned how to ask politely if she wanted to play a game, how to take turns choosing what map to play or whose world to play in. And they had a blast playing together.

One year later, we are finally starting to emerge. My youngest has met his online friend in person. I’m meeting other parents who have had the same experience of going from limited screentime to abundant screentime. And though we agree once the can of worms of Minecraft is open, there is no turning back, we don’t regret it.

Living on Long Island but my mind is elsewhere.