It’s just after dawn on a Saturday. From a couch in San Diego, my 13-year-old Facetimes with his best friend in Bend, Oregon. My 9-year-old video chats with a buddy in Santa Cruz; that kid shares his screen of a soccer game happening in northern England. On our TV, my boys watch a soccer match in London. A Premier League game in Manchester streams on the iPad. Whenever there’s a particularly impressive goal, my sons take turns talking smack via text to their friends in Berlin and San Francisco.
The second pandemic lockdown has arrived. And despite all the news reports about our kids’ diminishing mental health, my sons are happy. At times, deliriously so.
While scientists have long been warning parents that too much screen time can lead to depression, most especially in young people, the pandemic has forced us all to weigh the emotional risks of isolation against the rewards of technological connections. Instead of falling victim to their circumstances, my kids found a creative way to use technology to stay connected with their friends near and far through an unlikely source: fantasy soccer.
Turned out, in all my good intentions, their only hurdle to happiness was me.
Here’s probably an unpopular opinion: I’m one of those moms who regulate my kids’ screen time. I’d prefer them to make art or use their bodies. I eagerly quote the wisdom of a family therapist I know, Melissa Brohner Schneider, about enforcing firm tech boundaries for our kids—and ourselves. I rattle off advice from digital wellness educator Julia Storm about levels of stimulation and manipulative technology, encouraging them to get outside and use their bodies.
But then the second pandemic lockdown arrived in California. We’d exhausted all our baking and macrame projects. Their friends’ families wouldn’t allow the kids to hang as freely, and definitely not as often. In soccer practice, the boys were isolated to 6-foot spaces to juggle the ball alone, way too far to trade barbs with their teammates. Online school offered them zero chance for unregulated chatting. My kids had limited chances to interact with people their age. None of us knew how we’d weather a winter of Zoom, when my older son Kai asked if they could do a fantasy soccer league.
At first, I was resistant. They didn’t need more excuses to be on a screen. My friend, clinical social worker Adriana Guevara acknowledged my frustrations, saying that we’re all going through a challenging time right now. She referenced a study about soldiers returning from war and how the people who talked about their trauma, and found a release, were able to move forward with their lives. “Kids need the chance to get their negative energy out in creative ways; they need a release.”
“Right,” I said, cutting her off, “they totally don’t need to learn to wage their hopes 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 while they slapped some washed-up cocktail waitress’s butt.
“But it’s a way for us to connect with our friends,” Kai argued that first day.
“We’ll be able to compete like we do when we play, and keep social distance,” little Nikko added, tossing a pretend cough into his arm in a nod to his asthma.
“It’ll be good for them,” my husband said. “It’s not like they’re playing Fortnite 24/7. And we’ll create boundaries,” he added, already setting up 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 participate. At soccer practice, Nikko invited his coach and teammates to join in, instructing them on how to get a free account and create their own roster. The boys texted their friends on Kai’s phone, emailed their friends’ parents, their teachers, and even their former babysitter and her partner to join in, and by the end of the week, they had almost 20 people in their league.
When I spoke with Julia Storm, a digital wellness educator, she explained, “Creating a forum to connect with people your kids know from around the world, who share an interest to play a game and find a way to entertain themselves is not just an out-of-the-box solution like Fortnite. This is a clever use of technology.”
Sports therapist and high-performance coach Damon Valentino explained that in challenging times, resilient people “take in the reality of the situation and take the next best step.” He explained that when my sons saw that they wouldn’t have physical soccer games with their teams, or wouldn’t be able to socialize in person with their friends, they “reframed the game to put them in control. They were creative to take charge of their isolation and powerlessness in an overwhelming time to develop purpose and get out of the storyline of being victims.”
“I’m not surprised your kids thrived,” he added.
As athletes, healthy competition has always made my sons happy. Since March 2020, other than gaming, my kids haven’t been able to compete with anyone but each other, giving my older son an unfair advantage.
However, when the fantasy soccer season started, they were all about getting the highest score from the players on their rosters. Suddenly they were calling their friends constantly, sharing updates about the stats of players, applying the math skills that they claimed bored them in Zoom school, talking about which players had tested positive for Covid-19 that week, and as they liked to tell me, using their knowledge of the game to enhance their own skills on the field.
When I told Schneider about their league, she explained that our kids are looking for some type of escapism in this scary time. “We need to create something safe inside like a fantasy soccer league. Your kids are athletes, they’re social, and it gave them something to focus on, and the escapism we all need. We are all living in uncertainty.” She added that having something that’s predictable, like a sporting event with rules, in a time when right now in the world people aren’t following the same rules (like wearing face masks, or in politics, for example) can be a way to help our kids cope. And doing this with their friends can make all the difference.
Her husband, Rob Schneider, who specializes in counseling young people, added that as long as our kids have healthy digital hygiene (like taking breaks and getting outside), and parents place clear boundaries on their screen time, he doesn’t see a disadvantage to my kids’ project. “They are replacing something that has been lost. It may not be as good, but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.”
On a particularly chilly day, Nikko finally caught up to his dad in points for the week. I found him dancing around the house, singing Queen songs. “You got to do it next year, Mommy,” he said, throwing his arms around me in a way that evaporated all the stress of this planetary, shared moment. “If your friends do it too, it’ll make you so happy.”