Rules and expectations for healthy screen time need to be adjusted during a pandemic. These times are unprecedented, and it is unreasonable to think that all parenting guidelines that have worked in the past are appropriate now. Adjusting to the new realities has caused us to think about many things differently, with some of the changes here to stay and others not. At present, when the priorities are safety, social distancing, staying home, keeping busy, schooling online, and managing stress, rigid prescriptions for screen time limits are counterproductive. This is not to suggest that we abandon the goal of having a healthy and balanced “Play Diet,” in which kids regularly participate in physical, social, creative, unstructured, and digital play, but that kids going to school online and being stuck inside their homes will naturally result in more screen time. In previous articles and webinars I have suggested that parents loosen the reins on screen time a bit during the COVID-19 quarantine. However, parents will still need to be vigilant about the potential for negative impacts of kids spending too much time with screens, even if they help them to stay safe from the coronavirus. Parents may need to learn how to quarantine the screens.
Undoubtedly, screen time will get out of hand with some kids and families. Situations where kids – and adults – were already engaged in too much screen time are now bordering on addiction. Addictive behavior such as drinking too much during the quarantine has become more common, and adults and teens who become withdrawn and isolated in response to stress are likely to become even more withdrawn or isolated. This type of crisis is fertile ground for mental health issues, stress-related disorders, and addiction.
While the vast majority of kids are unlikely to show signs of addiction (it occurs in fewer than 5% of cases), there is clear potential for kids overdoing screen time during the quarantine and displaying signs of “problematic gaming.” This is more likely if parents are overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic, have to go to work during the day and leave their children unsupervised, or if living conditions create conflict that is best resolved through immersion in screens.
I have some suggestions for those of you who feel your children’s screen time is getting out of hand. These are provided in a stepwise fashion, starting from the easiest, most benign interventions to those that will require more effort and conflict.
- Have a family screen time summit. Use this as an opportunity to ask questions and hear how your kids are feeling about the coronavirus quarantine. Ask how they are using screens differently due to being stuck at home. Ask questions to determine if screen time might be helping them cope with anxiety. While our team at LearningWorks for Kids has never been in favor of using screen time as a babysitter or distraction for kids, we encourage making allowances if you find that gaming or social media is keeping your kids calmer and less anxious.
- Create a new and unique set of expectations around screen time during the quarantine. For example, if you allowed an hour of screen time during school days in the past, consider increasing it by 50 to 100 percent. The key would be for you to be proactive and in charge of these changes and explaining the rationale for more time, rather than allowing it to occur organically. This would give you more clout when you reduce screen time when home life is back to normal. Your kids will see this as a “win” and be less likely to have conflicts with you about it. I’d still suggest boundaries around screen time such as shutting off screens at a set time each night or no screens in bedrooms for younger kids.
- Schedule non-screen activities on a daily basis for all family members. This could include a time when everyone takes a walk; does some indoor exercise; reads; or practices a typical activity such as a musical instrument, karate, or dance moves.
- Curate screen time. Allow more time, but set limits on what your children do for their screen time. You could either peruse the online world yourself or ask your children to tell you what they would like to do and demonstrate it to you. Later you could do your own review, or use resources such as our game search on LearningWorks for Kids, or visit Commonsensemedia.org for more information. Let them know they can have more screen time using some of the new games and apps that you recommend.
- Approach your teenagers as co-problem solvers. Recent studies suggest that more than 50 percent of teenagers acknowledge that they use their phones too much. And that’s under normal circumstances, so it’s probably even worse during the quarantine.
- Use parental screen controls to monitor your kids’ screen time if necessary to guide further limits. Because kids are so adept at manipulating these data or cheating on these devices, you may need to try a few different programs to find one that is foolproof.
- Bring in the professionals. Consult with a mental health professional who has a background in addictive behavior and expertise with teens and young adults. You’ll find that almost all psychologists, social workers, and therapists are currently using video chat to work with their patients. Many have quickly developed some expertise in working with families about the stresses of the quarantine. You may need to consult with your child’s pediatrician to find the appropriate clinician.