Even in a Crisis, Children's Screen Time Needs to Be Controlled

Public Domain. Unsplash / YenYen

Excessive screen time is known to be harmful, and tough times don't justify letting those concerns slip.

If you thought governing your kids' screen time was tough before the pandemic hit, you have probably changed your mind by now. Those were easy days by comparison. Now there is seemingly so little for kids to do that handing them a screen has become the default for many parents just to get through the day. It has also become the means by which many teachers are continuing to educate their students, and friends and family are keeping in touch.

This raises questions as to whether or not it is OK for kids to be spending so much time online. On one hand, the Washington Post reports that screen time "has gone from sin to survival tool" and has become a near-necessity. Authors Geoffrey Fowler and Heather Kelly write:

"America’s great self-quarantine is prompting a rethink of one of the great villains of modern technology: screens. Now your devices are portals to employment and education, ways to keep you inside and build community, and vital reminders you’re not alone. The old concerns aren’t gone, but they look different when people are just trying to get by."

But there are still concerns.

On the other hand, all the extensive research warning against the negative effects of excessive screen time for children has not suddenly disappeared. It should not be ignored. Major organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and National Institutes of Health, have warned against children's use of hand-held devices in recent years. Tablets, phones, and computers do not cease to be harmful devices just because we have little else to distract us these days, and it's important for parents to realize that.

In a time of crisis, some rules tighten up, while others get more lax. There's nothing wrong with letting kids spend a bit more time online, especially if it helps us parents to maintain our sanity and get work done, but clear boundaries should still be drawn. I like the advice offered by Dr. Jean Twenge, psychology professor at San Diego University and author of "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood." In an article for the Institute for Family Services, Twenge explains that not all screen time is created equal and parents should differentiate between different forms.

"The data are still developing, but social media appears to be more harmful to mental health than other types of screen time. If kids and teens want to keep in touch with their friends, they can video chat using Facetime or Skype — that’s the closest they can get to in-person social interaction with friends these days, and it’s vastly preferable to the curated, competitive, and anxiety-provoking world of social media."

Using screens late at night interferes with sleep quality, and this period of isolation offers a unique opportunity for everyone, young and old, to be making up for lost hours. Without any late-night homework assignments serving as an excuse for kids to stay on their devices, Twenge thinks that parents should disable devices a half-hour before bedtime or remove them from the bedroom altogether. "This prevents kids and teens from using their devices when they are supposed to be sleeping; it also stops them from using them right before bedtime when the stimulation is likely to interfere with sleep."

Restrictions lead to resourcefulness.

I can relate to the desire to use screens for distraction as much as anyone. I, too, am stuck at home with three small kids, while also working full-time. It's not easy, and there are days when I cave to their requests to watch a movie or a few episodes of a favorite Netflix show. But I've also realized that it's only when the computer is turned off and tucked away that their incredible innate capacity for imaginative play emerges. When we have a designated screen-free day (this is at least every second day), they move on to bigger and better ways of entertaining themselves.

This is also a wonderful opportunity for many parents to practice some free-range parenting within the home environment. After all, those of us working from home won't get anything done if we're constantly supervising our kids. So I let mine bake freely in the kitchen, ride their bikes on the side street outside our house, play basketball in the driveway (we bought a net during this isolation period to help entertain them outside), and practice their skateboarding and pogo stick jumping skills. They have set up a papier-mâché zone, a pop-up card assembly line, and a blanket fort. They play with their marble run, their slot car track, their numerous LEGO sets, and they read books. Sometimes they just roll around on the floor and wrestle. Just as children have done throughout history, they find ways to entertain themselves, and this is made easier when I am not hovering close by.

quiet reading time

© K Martinko – Quiet reading time in my household

Parents shouldn't feel guilty for the times when they do need to use screens to improve their quality of life temporarily; we all need a break sometimes, including the kids, and these are trying times. But kids still need to be actively 'parented' more than ever right now, and I believe a big part of that is encouraging them to stay offline and showing them the many ways there are to entertain oneself without a device in hand.

Twenge points out that one silver lining during this pandemic is that families can spend more time together. "We are each other’s in-person social interaction right now. Even with all of the ups and downs of this strange time, that’s something to cherish." It truly is. Don't lose sight of that by getting sucked down the social media hole because that can never provide the kind of lasting connection that getting to know your immediate family members better can. Make this a time to remember, in the best possible way.