A great conflict is tearing this country apart, bitterly pitting generations against each other. It’s not immigration or Medicare-for-all. It’s the fight over how much time kids can spend staring at screens.

Call it the Great Screen Time War of 2019.

And I was winning the war on behalf of my kids—until the state of California intervened in favor of the screens.

To be a parent in 21st century America is to be whiplashed by contradictory advice and double-edged directives. The one that most rankles involves screens. To wit, I am supposed to keep my children offline and away from screens to protect their health and their future;  the state of California recommends no more than 60 minutes of screen time after-school. And yet, I am also supposed to keep them online, where—also at the behest of the state—more of their academic work must be performed.

My wife and I tried mightily to square that circle with the Three Stooges, our three young sons, now ages 10, 8, and 5. During the pre-school years, we all but banned TV, and successfully kept them of the Internet.  

But then our oldest son hit third grade, when the state starts its standardized testing in public schools. Since 2015 that testing, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, has been conducted online. To prepare for these tests, schools and teachers—quite naturally—put more homework and classwork online.

And that is how this parent lost the screen time battle.

In the early grades, we resisted getting a computer for our oldest. But by the third grade, with the homework online, he needed his own, and so we bought a cheap Chromebook. It’s all been downhill from there.

Before the Chromebook, we had a simple, enforceable message—stay away from screens. Now, we were contradicting ourselves—”you need to get on the computer and do your homework!” followed by “you get have to get off the computer—too much screen time.”

The Stooges attend a demanding public school, so on most nights, our two older boys are online for more than the 60 minutes recommend by the California Department of Education.  . And sometimes it’s even more, because, as I feared, they have found addictive online games. What I didn’t anticipate was that they would be introduced to those games via the school.

The website of our San Gabriel Valley school district links students to more than 100 different sites, services and apps to enrich their elementary education. To be fair, these enrichment extras have been vital to my two younger sons, who are in a Mandarin Immersion program and rely on online tools to learn Chinese characters.  But many of these educational offerings come from tech start-ups that have fused homework with video games. My two older boys obsessively play Prodigy, available via the district site, which mixes math problems with online fighting and the collection of different online rewards.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing warning signs of excessive screen use: the kids don’t want to go outside as much, and bedtime is later.  It is so hard to get them to stop that a majority of child-parent conflict in our household now involves Prodigy.

When I complain about this, most people throw the problem back in my face. It’s my job as a parent to police screen time—just like our parents policed our TV time. But there’s a crucial difference: I wasn’t required to do my homework on TV.

So I try my best. But most suggested strategies involve just putting more pressure on parents to lock up and control devices like computers and tablets, and to monitor their kids’ screens at all times. I’m sorry, but it’s hard to enough to enforce time limits.  And what about my own screen time? After long work days editing and writing in front of a screen, should I spend evenings and weekends staring at their screens?

This now-ubiquitous problem is thick with ironies. I make sure the boys play sports, but screens are invading that world too—via an app called Gamechanger. One expert recommended that I develop a “family media plan,” but the American Academy of Pediatricians’ tool to do that is, of course, online.

Of course, there is no going back. Too much has been invested in educational technology, and this environmentally-minded state, now considering a ban on paper receipts, could ban  paper homework before too long.

But if screen time proves to have all the long-term effects on kids’ brains that some media researchers fear, then the difficult job of policing should not be left just to parents. Drastic action from the state will be required, including changes in how the schools distribute homework, provide online enrichment, and conduct testing.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.