Screen Time & COVID-19

Screen time was already a contentious issue for parents and children before coronavirus hit. But now that everything is digital – school, work, social engagements, even extracurriculars – many families are struggling to figure out what limits are appropriate.

Pre-corona, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended avoiding all screen time for children under 18 months (other than video chatting with family and close friends, which, if the person is engaging directly with the child, can actually help develop early social skills!). For children 18-24 months, a small amount of screen time can be introduced (about 25 minutes tops per day). Ideally, however, this is high-quality educational programming that is viewed with the parent, so the parent can help the child engage meaningfully with the material. For children ages 2-5, parents are advised to keep screen time to one hour or less per day (and ideally only high-quality educational programming with parent involvement).

The guidelines are less specific for children age five and older, with the emphasis more on what children use screens for than for how long. The AAP basically advises parents to limit screens to the best of your ability and to preview any shows/games/apps kids and teens are using to make sure they’re developmentally appropriate. Whatever your household rules are, the AAP encourages you to stick to them, and make sure that screen time does not interfere with your child’s other needs (sleeping, eating, physical activity, social time, and studying).

A New Normal

But now that everything is digital, parents are struggling to figure out where to draw that line. Many are concerned with the risks of increased screen time, such as physical inactivity (which can lead to obesity), sleep disruption, and attentional, behavioral, and social issues. The good news is that these risks are smaller than we think. Additionally, they can be at least partially mitigated by intentional screen time (more on that below) and parent involvement/supervision.

These days, there is simply no avoiding screen time. In fact, in the age of #WorkFromHome, this very article is being written with a five-month-old in my arms. To help alleviate any guilt about additional screen exposure (while still maintaining control of the household!), read on for some guidance about navigating screen time while stuck at home.

Be Flexible, But Don’t Throw Everything Out the Window.

Whatever rules you had about screen time before have probably been shifted by now. That’s okay! Letting your children use screens for more time per day is not a sign of giving up or giving in. Like the AAP says, it’s more important to consider what your children are using screens for than to harp on how much they’re using them.

Children are currently facing bigger risks than screen exposure. Their access to education has drastically shifted, so they need screens for their learning. Children (and adults, too!) are also now at risk for social isolation, so they need screens to stay connected to peers. Depending on your living situation and family resources, children may also be limited in terms of space to engage in physical activities or access to extracurricular activities. Again, enter screens… child-friendly exercise videos or online classes (think art classes, cooking classes…even karate classes are available online now!).

So yes, it is warranted these days to flex your screen time rules to make space for all the ways screens are currently helping our children thrive. That said, if you throw the rules out the window completely and let your kids have access to screens all day long (and without any guidelines about what they can use screens for), it might be difficult to walk it back when life goes back to normal. It pays to try to find a balance somewhere in the middle that still allows your kids some free time on screens (in addition to screen time used for school, friends, family, and engaging activities), but also encourages them to use some hours of the day for screen-free activities, like spending time with household members, reading books, playing outdoors, etc.

Make a Corona-Specific Family Media Use Plan.

The AAP has a free and easy-to-use Family Media Plan generator that you can individualize for each child in your home based on their age and your household rules. The media plan includes personalized ground rules for screen use as well as a system to help parents decide how many hours per day to allow each child in the family to use screens. 

In general, when deciding your corona system for screen time allowance, it can help to consider making a more specific plan about how much time can be used for different types of screen exposure (i.e., how many hours can be used on social media apps such as TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram; how many hours can be used on educational programming, how many hours can be used watching YouTube videos, etc.). To help you keep track of your children’s screen use, you might even consider using an app to monitor how they use their screen time.

Encourage Healthy Activities

Coronavirus has led to wonderful displays of generosity from individuals and companies around the globe in terms of supporting children’s engagement in healthy and stimulating activities while at home. Help your kids use screens in ways that support their development by guiding them towards online activities such as…

Keep Evenings Screen Free

Finally, to avoid disruptions to sleep, you may want to institute a Screen “Curfew”. In other words, create a time of night ideally an hour or more before bedtime where children hand over their devices to be charged in a room other than their bedroom. This will avoid loss of sleep due to staying up scrolling on their Instagram feeds or disruptions to their circadian rhythms because of blue light exposure.

However you decide to manage your family’s screen use, make sure you find a system that works for you. What matters most is that everybody is able to thrive, that family conflict not soar through the roof, and that everybody in the house is able to maintain some safe connections to the outside world. If that means screen time goes up substantially, that’s okay! At the end of the day, you are doing what you need to do for your family, and that is what parenting is all about.

As always, contact Sasco River Center if you need help with your child, or parenting in general.

About Sasco River Center

A multidisciplinary practice offering a range of diagnostic and therapy services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families; specializing in Collaborative & Comprehensive Testing, Psychotherapy & Sensory Processing.

We are a merger of Sensory Kids & The Southfield Center for Development