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Strategies for smart screen time during COVID

sisters watching tv on the laptop

With kids’ virtual learning and activities, remote work from home, and video chats with family and friends, many of us find ourselves overwhelmed with screen time gone overboard. Data is showing that kids ages 6 to 12 years old in the United States are spending about 50% more time in front of screens than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Traffic to kids’ digital apps and services have increased by 70% during the same period of time. And with an increase in screen usage comes an increase in guilty feelings for parents and caregivers. But we’d like to help ease the guilt with some information and practical tips for families.

What experts say about screen time

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has reported that kids ages 8 to 12 are typically on screens 4 to 6 hours per day and teens are on screens typically up to 9 hours per day.

That’s a lot of screen time, especially compared with the guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to start healthy media habits with kids and teens by making age-appropriate time limits and types of screen use. The younger a child is, the more influence screens have on their development.

  • Under the age of 18 months: no screen time except video chatting with loved ones
  • 18 months to 2 years old: 1 hour per day of high-quality educational content only co-watching with adult
  • 3 to 5 years old: 1 hour per day
  • 6 to 10 years old: 1.5 hours per day
  • 11+ years old: 2 hours per day

During these unprecedented and uncertain times, screen time guidelines are not always possible or reasonable to follow. Instead of focusing solely on the amount of time spent, we can focus on how to make screen time more meaningful.

Why smart screen use matters

Thoughtful screen use can enhance kids’ and families’ lives.

  • It allows our children and us parents to connect with family and friends.
  • It helps us learn new skills through video tutorials.
  • It enables us to stream unique interactive events.
  • It engages us in new hobbies and groups.
  • It can give kids new ways to socialize and to engage in physical play, creative play and unstructured play—all crucial to their health.

But, too much thoughtless screen time for kids may lead to:

  • Sleep problems (huge for brain and body development)
  • Lower grades in school
  • Decreased reading ability
  • Less time spent with family
  • Less physical activity
  • Weight problems and metabolic syndrome
  • Poor self-image
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Decreased ability to self-regulate, relax and have fun off of screens

How to say goodbye to screen time guilt

Make a media plan as a family. Decide together how, when and where media will be used in your home. Customize a printable plan on the American Academy of Pediatrics-sponsored website healthychildren.org. The site has good information on parenting strategies and tools to help develop a family media use plan that is specific to your own needs.

Do tech together. Screen time doesn’t have to be solo time. Take on a kid-friendly DIY project, play a video game or pop some popcorn and have a special movie night.

Use social media for good. Check in on neighbors, friends and loved ones, and encourage kids to do the same. Share helpful resources and uplifting content to help people feel more connected and hopeful. It is possible that during the pandemic, your children may be pushing for permission to register for a social media account. Most social media applications have an age requirement of 13, primarily as this is the age data can legally be collected on an individual. If your child is new to social media, it is strongly recommended you teach them appropriate and safe online behavior including privacy, not chatting with strangers and showing appropriate and respectful online behavior. It is always a good idea to know the individuals who your child may be interacting with online just as you would offline.

Add some offline options. Screen time should be balanced with plenty of screen-free time. Look for educational activities to support the online education that your child may be receiving. Your child's teachers may be great resources for appropriate and high-quality offline tools.

Kids (and grown-ups) should be getting daily physical activity, preferably outside if it’s safe. Play games, have a dance party or get crafty together. It’s amazing what you can find to do when screens are off the table.

Get mindful. Our devices enable us to receive incredible amounts of data during our waking hours. If we can ground ourselves from all those sensory inputs, we can have more ability to regulate our own emotions. Take this pandemic as an opportunity to help your kids feel grounded and settled back into their bodies. Try high-quality resources for child-appropriate mindfulness, breathing exercises, meditation and yoga, such as Cosmic Kids Yoga.

Focus on the positive. Be selective about the content you and your kids are viewing. Watch mostly positive material when possible, and through trusted sources. Use commonsensemedia.org for age-appropriate media recommendations. Parents should note their own reactions to media and take breaks if it is negatively impacting their own mood or stress level, which we know will also impact our kids.

Take note of how technology affects your kids. Digital devices and content are tools that can help or hinder children’s ability to do schoolwork, to connect with others and to participate in activities. Keep an eye out for signs that tech is having a negative impact:

  • Abrupt change in mood, anxiety state, behavior, or group of friends
  • Increased isolating behaviors
  • Not enjoying activities they used to enjoy (might be a sign of depression, anxiety)

Try teachable moments, not punishment. Recognize that these are unique and difficult times, and kids are usually doing their best. If they slip up, help them understand the consequences and assist them in thinking through what’s good for them and bad for them. Take breaks from certain online activities or video games for a week if they are obsessing over them or it is hard to engage in other responsibilities. With older kids, teach them the skills to be able to turn off technology themselves when appropriate rather than solely relying on parents for limits.

One final note

Let’s not forget that we are all learning on the fly during this pandemic. We were never trained for this, and it is okay to cut ourselves and our kids some slack. Let’s take this opportunity to get creative, to improvise and to change up the plan as needed. It is perfectly reasonable to have different guidelines or strategies in your home from the guidelines and strategies of your neighbors or your kids’ friends’ families. Don't expect perfection. Any thoughtful approach is better than no approach at all. Some days will go better than others and that is to be expected.

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Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, University of Kansas School of Medicine