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.