Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, parents were very concerned about the amount of time their kids were spending in front of screens. In many first world countries, screen time was identified as one of the most prominent health concerns of parents. Parents often feel that they children are surgically attached to their phones and other screen-based technologies, whether this means playing Fortnite for hours at a time or nonstop texting with their friends. Given that preteens spend 8.5 hours per day with screen-based media (and teens 9.5 hours), these parental observations are not far off. Interestingly, kids also often acknowledge that screen time has gotten out of hand. Forty-five percent of teens report that they are almost constantly online, and a recent study by the Pew Research Center indicates that 24% of teens see social media having a mostly negative impact on their lives, while another 45% see it as neither positive or negative. It’s clear when talking to teens that they sometimes want to get away from screens.
So what is a parent or teenager to do? Screens – in all of their forms – are not going away. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had become crucial to education, communication, business, personal productivity, and keeping up with current events. And during the quarantine, they have become ubiquitous for school, work, and entertainment. But if there was too much screen time before, what are we to make of what is happening now? And what will happen when COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in place? Will we still be glued to our screens, or might we learn to appreciate non-screen time? I hope that our extreme reliance on screen time for work, learning, and recreation during the pandemic will lead to a more balanced relationship with technology for both kids and adults.
Our approach at LearningWorks for Kids has always been to advocate for a balanced and healthy “Play Diet” while acknowledging the value of screen time as an opportunity for “digital play.” After all, while play is the most important way for younger children to learn, it is also crucial for the social and emotional development of adolescents and for happiness in adults. But play is not just “digital play.” I would argue that “unstructured” and “creative” play are more crucial to early child development than screen-based play and that “social” and “physical” play are often the most beneficial forms of play for teenagers and adults However these forms of play are often not as compelling as digital play, and, as a result, achieving a healthy “Play Diet” in the 21st century can be difficult both for children and their parents. In the context of changes influenced by COVID-19, working towards a healthy “Play Diet” is even more worth the effort.
Here are some ways to create a healthy “Play Diet”:
- Allow yourself to be less concerned about the amount of time your kids spend with screens and, instead, look at what they are doing on them. There are positive aspects to playing with their friends, communicating with others, or doing their homework on screens. What you really need to be concerned about is whether they are missing out on other things and what opportunities have been lost by spending so much time on the screen.
- Model a healthy “Play Diet.” The latest research suggests that adults spend 9.5 hours per day in front of screens. If that’s you, and this is not due simply to work demands, think about what else you might be doing. As all parents know, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. Develop hobbies that are outside of screens, get outside on a regular basis, or develop a regular exercise program. Be sure to involve others in your use of screens.
- Spend money or time on other activities for your kids. Part of the reason screens are so engaging is that they are everywhere and free. Some parents are fortunate enough to have extra cash to fund lessons, classes, and hobbies for their kids. But even when finances are tight, chauffeuring your kids to visit with their friends or going to the local YMCA is a great way to get more balance in your child’s play.
- Learn to leverage your child’s screen time to develop other hobbies and interests. For example, many kids spend a lot of time watching and listening to YouTube music videos. Nurture this interest in teens by allowing them to attend a local concert. Watch a live concert on television or show them a concert by your favorite band. You might be amazed at how often teens adopt some of their parents’ music as their own if not forced to do so. Make it easier for younger children to do hands-on activities such as creating and learning about new types of slime or getting involved in cooking and baking projects.
- Take more of an interest in your children’s screen time. This can influence them to choose better content and enhance what they get from conversations. If they see that you have an interest and are not simply critical of them being in front of a screen, they may be more willing to engage with you in conversation about finding a better balance of play activities.
- Create a family expectation of community involvement. Parents of today can be very stressed by having a full-time job, raising kids, and taking care of many other responsibilities. Model taking time to relax, engaging in charitable and spiritual activities, and being involved with your larger community to provide an example for the importance of doing things for others and taking time away from the need to be on screens. Given that much of teen screen time revolves around FOMO (fear of missing out), they would benefit from the involvement and communication involved in engaging with others in the community. This helps them to go outside of themselves and often leads to a better sense of self-esteem.