How to Balance Children’s Screen Time During the Pandemic
Thanks to stay at home orders that forced children indoors and education online, many parents and educators paused debate over how much screen time is appropriate for kids. In fact, COVID-19 safety measures created such a shift in how parents and caregivers had to think about children and screen time that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidance on screen use. The organization acknowledged screen usage has likely increased for children, but parents should ensure media use is positive and helps the family and community.
“It’s more important than ever for us to put structures and schedules into our days and to those of our children to ensure a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”
“It’s more important than ever for us to put structures and schedules into our days and to those of our children to ensure a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul Weigle on Hartford HealthCare’s podcast series “Coping with COVID-19.” “If we don’t, screen media, video games (and) social media can really creep in. It can really take over.”
How does Screen Time Affect Children?
With many citizens ordered to shelter in place or limit travel, people are spending more time in front of phones and computers, whether for work, entertainment, or to maintain social connections. In many cases, children must do the same. But that can come with consequences.
“The more screen exposure young people have, toddlers in particular, the more behavior problems they have and the more learning problems they have earlier on,” Weigle said. “Kids really need to interact with the real world before they start to get sucked into the virtual world.”
“Children ages 8-12 in the United States were spending an average of four to six hours a day watching or using screens, and teens were spending up to nine hours.”
These precautions aren’t limited to very young children; parents should also be mindful of the impact on school-age children. Before classes moved online due to COVID-19, children ages 8-12 in the United States were spending an average of four to six hours a day watching or using screens, and teens were spending up to nine hours, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported.
Weigle said too much screen time for children can affect:
Sleep. Sleep is the foundation for mental and physical well-being.
Physical activity. Movement and exercise prevent obesity and help young bodies develop.
Socializing. Interacting with other people promotes communication skills and helps develop empathy.
Family time. Connecting with family members develops and strengthens bonds, trust and openness.
Diet and nutrition. Watching what you eat promotes good nutrition and health.
Personal responsibilities. Household chores, grooming and school assignments foster discipline and autonomy.
To prevent screen use from negatively affecting children, parents should look for behavioral signs that their children are over-engaging with screens. Dramatic changes usually indicate potential trouble, Weigle said.
“With kids, they can have severe tantrums when they need to turn off their games,” he explained. “Teens might stay up very late at night and stop socializing or spending time with family. Sometimes, they can stop grooming and fail to meet their responsibilities at school and that can cause school failures.”
How Can Parents Manage Children’s Screen Time?
As much as parents may want to limit screen time, the pandemic is requiring children to use their computers and phones more often. In a 2017 Ted Talk, ”Three Fears About Screen Time for Kids – And Why They’re Not True,” children’s media expert and PBS Kids Digital Vice President Sara DeWitt highlighted how parents can reframe their fears about screen time as opportunities.
Reframing Fears into Opportunities
FEAR: SCREENS ARE PASSIVE.
Opportunity: Digital prompting enables learning.
Younger children can watch interactive videos about topics that are fun for them, like animals, which can introduce them to different educational concepts. Older children may find content that builds skills more entertaining. For example, they can learn how to sew a face mask.
FEAR: PLAYING GAMES ON THESE SCREENS IS JUST A WASTE OF TIME.
Opportunity: Games help children understand key skills and can teach adults about a child’s cognitive learning development.
If a child likes playing games focused on math and scores well on those games, that child might enjoy working on more complex math problems. Teachers could use that kind of information to individualize instruction, making lessons more beneficial for the children.
FEAR: SCREENS ARE ISOLATING ME FROM MY CHILD.
Opportunity: Talking with kids about their media use keeps parents engaged, benefiting parents and children.
Parents should encourage children to share their online experiences and discuss them. Young children enjoy when parents are interested in their activities. Starting the conversation when kids are young helps normalize similar discussions about content when they get older.
“Just the act of talking to kids about their media can be incredibly powerful,” DeWitt said.
The key is to monitor and moderate. AAP’s updated guidance on how to help children achieve a healthy balance of screen usage suggests the following:
Schedule your day. Create a daily plan for online work with breaks to relax and connect with each other to maintain structure.
Communicate with the experts you know. Ask teachers to recommend online and offline educational activities for children.
Make positive use of social media. Use video chats or social media to avoid isolation, stay connected and check with neighbors, friends and loved ones to see if they are OK.
Be selective about content. Use trusted sources for positive, informational and useful content.
Use media together. Watch a movie together and discuss the story with children. Monitor what older children are viewing and what they are learning.
The right online activities can be great learning tools. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that recommends entertainment and technology for parents and schools, says activities and other programming should:
- Encourage curiosity.
- Involve critical thinking.
- Build concepts.
- Provide feedback and opportunities to extend the lessons beyond the screen session.
Some apps and websites Common Sense Media recommends for children include:
Apps: World of Peppa Pig (ages 3+), A Parcel of Courage (ages 3+), Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors (ages 5+) Space Science Investigations: Plant Growth (ages 10+), Lirica – Learn Languages (ages 13+)
Websites: Bedtime Math (ages 3+), Fact Monster (ages 6+), Bookopolis (ages 7-12) iCivics (ages 12+), Schmoop (ages 14+)
Activities for Kids When They Need a Break from Screens
To balance screen use, families should build in time to step away from their laptops or iPads. For children who need a break from screens, consider the following activities:
Activities for Rainy Days
Build a fort. Using whatever is available such as pillows, seat cushions, blankets and stuffed animals to build a fort requires imagination, includes basic concepts of building design and teamwork.
Make sock puppets and stage a show. Making characters with old socks, recycled buttons and fabric scraps is an exercise in creativity and design. Producing a puppet show develops children’s communication, public speaking and performance skills.
Prepare a meal. Cooking teaches children the importance of following instructions as they use recipes that emphasize the concepts of measurements and time. They can start with the basics such as cooking a potato in the microwave or boiling an egg.
Build model airplanes. Making model planes requires concentration and hand-eye coordination, while offering incentive to learn the history of types of planes and the science of flying. Younger kids can start with folding paper airplanes from paper bags, magazines or newspapers.
Activities for the Outdoors
Paint rocks and place them for people to find. Painting rocks with designs and inspirational messages for people to discover while on their walks taps into empathy, artistry and creativity. Kids can use leftover watercolors, finger paints or chalk for this.
Make a terrarium. Putting together a terrarium not only allows kids to flex their creativity, it also requires research of plants, soil, sand and rocks while considering factors such as temperature, moisture and the container used. Children can recycle large jars and vases or buy an inexpensive used aquarium.
Stargaze. Gazing at the night sky to find stars and constellations can be fun and foster interest in all things outer space—the stars, planets and the moon. Children can find star charts online or ask for resources at the library.
Create a scrapbook or journal. Collecting memories can be simple and enjoyable. Kids can write poems or songs about a new encounter or experience, draw a picture of a new friend and attach keepsakes. At the end of the week, adults can ask children about their favorite new entry. This activity can also work as a scavenger hunt.
Activities for the Whole Family
Attend free music concerts. Free concerts in parks, plazas and other venues can expose children to different music genres and help develop a new interest. If families can’t maintain social distance at their parks, parents can search for digital performances and watch them with the children.
Find volunteer opportunities. The pandemic has left many families in need and offers an opportunity to teach children about empathy. Families can participate in safe volunteer activities at traditional locations like food banks or volunteer at home on virtual projects.
Visit a historic site or monument. Although families may not be able to take tours or enter buildings, they can still visit historic landmarks or sites, which let parents engage in important conversations about history. Many museums also offer online tours.
Plant a vegetable garden. Harvesting vegetables requires research about how to care for plants and discipline to maintain the garden. If space is not available, a few planters or recycled containers can serve as alternatives. Sharing meals with food grown in the garden can also help parents introduce the concept of sustainability.
Parents should also remember that they have to set examples. Children look to their parents and other adults as role models, so putting away the laptops, tablets and phones for a time is important for everyone, Weigle said in the podcast.
“All people, in order to be healthy and to be happy, we really have to have some balance in our lives,” he said.
This article was posted August 2020.