Screen time has gone through the roof as a result of Covid-19—and parents are worried about the long-term consequences. About 65 percent of parents have been letting kids watch more movies and TV shows since the coronavirus crisis began in the U.S., according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Tubi. In fact, a ParentsTogether survey showed a 500 percent increase in the number of kids spending 6 hours or more per day online—and more than half of parents are concerned about their kids becoming addicted to screens.
Can we—should we—be doing anything about kids’ increased screen time, even as parents continue to rely on screens in so many ways right now? Michael Robb, director of research at Common Sense Media, maintains, “We are living through a massive cultural shock. Families have enough stress to deal with, and counting screen minutes should be very low on the list of concerns for any of us.” However, there are several steps parents can take now to help smooth the transition later, when we start trying to ramp down media usage.
Instead of worrying about the amount of screen time, Robb recommends, focus on the quality of screen time. Aim for more “high-quality content that stokes curiosity and fuels imagination” (such as educational games or videos) as well as the positive use of “tech to strengthen relationships” (such as virtual playdates or talent shows with friends or family).
In addition, Robb says, it helps to talk to kids about what they’re viewing. “Ask questions about their favorite games, shows, and characters. Discuss ideas and issues they read about or learn about through a TV show or a game. This is an opportunity for learning about each other and sharing your values.” Even if you don’t have time to sit and watch a show with them, you can still ask questions about it during dinner time, and help them process what they saw.
And finally, try to balance out the screen time with other things, so that kids are also staying physically active, going outside when possible, engaging in unstructured play, doing some hands-on learning (even household chores count for this), and interacting with loved ones (even if that requires screens sometimes).
Other child development experts reinforced Robb’s opinion. As Corinne Purtill summed up for the BBC, “None of the experts are upset that your children are spending far more time on screens these days, because their children are all using screens more too.”
Los Angeles-based pediatrician Cori Cross, M.D., who co-authored the AAP’s policy statement on media use for teens, has relaxed some of the screen time rules in her own household during quarantine—for instance, letting her kids use tech in their bedrooms so that they can have a quiet place to concentrate on school work. Dr. Cross emphasizes that “it’s all about the big picture.” It is important that kids are still getting healthy sleep, for example, so she doesn’t allow screens in bedrooms at night.
Jenny Radesky, M.D., who’s an assistant professor of pediatrics and a developmental behavioural pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, co-authored the AAP’s 2016 media use guidelines for young children. But even Dr. Radesky doesn’t think parents should worry about meeting a certain standard right now. “I don’t want parents to feel the pressure that they need to be perfect and do that 24 hours a day,” she told the BBC. “If you feel like you overdid it on screens one day, you can try again the next.”
Dr. Radesky does offer one key proactive approach parents can take to prepare our families for post-pandemic life, including readjusting to normal screen time rules and expectations, and that is to help kids develop the ability to regulate their own use of technology. “Challenge your children to practice ‘tech self-control’ and turn off tech themselves,” she tweeted. A timer can be a helpful tool to remind kids to get off of devices—and let’s face it, it’s a great idea for parents too.
But will kids need to do a “digital detox” as things start to return to some version of normal? That might depend on how they’re using their device—regardless of the number of minutes or hours they’re on a screen. “Just as for adults, for kids screens are often absolutely essential tools for active, stimulating work that involves collaborating with peers, consultation with teachers, and construction of knowledge,” Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Pearson’s Connections Academy, told Forbes. “Other times, screens connect us to people that would otherwise be unreachable—family members far away, friends inaccessible due to lockdown. And sometimes, screens provide the comfort of stories and music. As our world gets back to ‘normal,’ kids will still need to construct knowledge, access people, and be entertained, and ideally they’ll have multiple ways to do all three.”
Like all the other challenges we’re facing right now, staying in communication about it as a family is the healthiest approach. Just as families have adapted—and continue to adapt—to living in a pandemic, we’ll be able to adapt to a different post-pandemic routine and figure out what works best for both kids and parents.