Health & Science

Here’s What Experts Are Saying About Schoolagers and Screens Right Now

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With so many families across the country observing stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents are left juggling home responsibilities, work, and school—while also trying to keep tabs on their children’s screen use. Children and Screens, a nonprofit that supports evidence-based scientific research on technology’s impacts on child health and well-being, hosted a series of webinars offering guidance and tips for addressing screen time for kids during quarantine.

The second webinar in the series focused on kids in kindergarten through eighth grade (the first centered on babies and toddlers, while the third addressed screen time and teens), and brought together a panel of experts moderated by Dr. Colleen Kraft, a pediatrician with the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The panel shared that most kids are looking at screens twice as much as they were before quarantine started, and that frequent device use has been shown to correlate with problems like depression, anxiety, and sleep deprivation. On the other hand, parents can learn ways to use screen time as part of the solution to quarantine stress and not just as a quick fix when in need of some free time. In fact, because kids’ brains are resilient and constantly adapting and reprogramming, this unique time is a good opportunity to build positive tech habits in children.

Here are the biggest takeaways from the experts to remember:

  1. Not all screen time is created equal.  Screens can be used for good if the right content is chosen. The best digital media for kids is the kind that reinforces off-screen skills and relationships—so, as an example, YouTube tutorials to guide a long term project are much better than entertaining cartoons. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author, recommends PBS Kids, YouTube tutorials, and podcasts, which are digital but not visual, giving your kids’ eyes a much needed break.

    Surprisingly, social media can also be used by kids in meaningful and positive ways. In fact, the pandemic is changing experts’ minds about the role of social media in families’ lives. Social media can be used to foster and reinforce offline social relationships which are hugely important to child development. Steiner-Adair strongly recommends that parents sit with their children as they use social media and talk about the feelings attached to what they’re seeing on the screen.
  2. Be consistent and predictable. In what is a very unpredictable time, it’s so important to provide as much comfort and normalcy for kids as possible. Try to keep pre-quarantine routines going as much as you can, and make any new routines as consistent as possible. Warn kids ahead of time about any changes in the rules. (Pro tip from Dr. Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center: help them choose a calming behavior to use when the transition is frustrating for them—think meditation, drawing, reading, or anything quiet and calming that they love). Dr. Steiner-Adair recommended that parents choose consistent times throughout the day when they are with their kids without screens, like at meal times, as a way to reassure kids that they are reliably there to support them.
  3. Nurture social development by balancing screen time with real-life engagement. Keeping social relationships strong during this period of isolation is so important for kids’ brains. Social media can be used in small doses for this, as long as parents sit with their kids and talk with them about what they’re doing and seeing, but Dr. Englander emphasized the importance of real-life social engagement in promoting positive behaviors and mental wellbeing. She recommends focusing more on in-person interactions by creating new habits like making eye contact, sharing family meals at the table, and having reliable times to interact as a family without screens—simple things that can make a huge difference in kids’ social development. Use whatever newfound downtime your family has in quarantine to help your kids hone a new off-screen skill or work on a long-term project. Work educational lessons into real-life activities like cooking or playing with toys. Dr. Moriah Thomason, a neuroscientist, recommends taking an interest (or at least pretending to) in your child’s media activities. Whatever game or app they’re into, learn how it works and talk to them about it. This can create a helpful channel of communication around their tech use. 

The big picture? Screens aren’t always negative, but missing out on the other activities screentime often replaces can be detrimental to a child’s development, so finding balance is key. Here’s a link to the full webinar.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.