Zoom online learning. FaceTime with grandparents. Video games, TV, social media, texts.
Are our children on screen time overload?
Many parents are aware of the traditional recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) regarding screen time and children. In short: Limit screen time, especially at young ages, because too much screen time can impede children's cognitive and language development.
But what happens when there's a pandemic and children are home all day with parents who may be teleworking? Screen time should never be a babysitter, but what about now, when you can't welcome a babysitter in your home, day care is closed and you're just trying to keep your family safe and healthy?
Instead of worrying about screen time quantity, think about quality. Think about education and connectedness. And cut yourself some slack! This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't feel guilty if your child is spending more time in front of a screen than usual. Just try to strike a healthy balance between screen time and other activities.
Traditional Guidance and New Guidance
The AAP, for years, has offered screen time guidance. According to the well-regarded organization, children younger than 18 months should avoid screen media other than video chatting. For children between 18-24 months, screen time should be limited to high-quality programming, and parents should watch the programming alongside their children to continuously engage with them and help their little ones understand the content.
The AAP recommends children ages 2-5 years old have no more than 1 hour of high-quality screen time daily, and parents should watch the programming with their children. Parents of children ages 6 and older should set consistent limits around screen time and ensure children are getting enough sleep and exercise.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has families spending more time indoors. For the most part, traditional after-school activities have fallen to the wayside. The AAP recognizes that children likely will spend more time in front of screens.
Also, consider the findings of a recent study from the journal JAMA Pediatrics, which concluded that "greater quantity of screen use (ie, duration of use and background television) is associated with lower language skills. Better quality of screen exposure in older children (ie, educational and co-viewing) appears to be beneficial for child language; however, it remains that screens should continue to be used in moderation."
The key is to make screen time meaningful:
Have your children be active while engaging in screen time. Look for dance games, yoga videos and other exercise videos. This is a great alternative to being sedentary in front of a screen.
Look for educational content. Whether that's exploring videos of a national park, a zoo, a museum or an aquarium, take a tour of place you've never been. Since libraries are closed, take advantage of online books. There are also lots of free educational programs where children can practice math, science, reading, social studies, foreign languages and more.
Play video games. Not all video games are created equal. Steer your children to games they can play remotely with friends as a way to foster social interaction. [Just keep an eye on what they're playing and steer away from violent video games.]
Listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Encourage children to find a few favorite podcasts and to listen to audiobooks, which will give their eyes a much-needed break from staring at a screen. They'll hone vital listening comprehension skills.
Maintain connections. Using screens is a great way to keep connected. Children can have video playdates, text with friends and FaceTime with relatives. An old-fashioned phone call works too, but what grandparent wouldn't want to see how the grandchild is growing?
Though your children may be using screens more, that doesn't mean they should be attached to devices all day, every day. Approximately 1 hour of passive screen time is sufficient. Passive screen time generally includes watching television for entertainment or playing solitary video games.
I recommend against counting educational screen time toward that 1-hour limit. I also recommend against counting time spent actively socializing – such as chatting with relatives and friends – toward that 1-hour limit.
To avoid arguments, set limits and boundaries and explain them to your children. If they know the guidelines and structure, they may be more cooperative when it's time to turn off the device. Sticking to routines helps.
With increased use of screen time comes an increased need to make sure your children are using screens safely. Know your child and determine when your child is responsible enough to know passwords to shared family devices.
Supervise your children when they are using devices. You don't necessarily need to hover, but be aware of with whom they are talking. Check browser history. Adjust device settings so children can't access sites you consider dangerous.
Make sure children aren't participating in sexting or cyberbullying. Talk to your children about these threats and encourage them to come to you with any concerns.
When bedtime approaches, do what's best for your child. Many children need to avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime to help them unwind. Screens before bedtime can rile up children, making it harder for them to settle down for the night. Some children may need to stop looking at screens as many as two or three hours before bedtime. Yet there are some children who calm down while watching television shortly before bedtime. Know your child.
Make Time Offline
Even though children likely will spend more time on screens as we remain away from home and school during the pandemic, remember that offline time is important too. Children should play games, work on puzzles, exercise, read books, create art, cook, bake and spend time outdoors (while practicing social distancing guidelines of staying at least 6 feet away from people outside of your household).
Though it's hard for children – and even adults – to understand, boredom is OK too. Not every minute needs to be programmed and structured. Boredom can encourage imagination and creativity. Let kids be bored once in a while.
Parents should also model good screen time behavior by putting away devices at mealtimes and not staring mindlessly at the TV. Find time to talk to your children without a device nearby. If you're using a device in front of your children, do so for positive reasons, such as exercise or completing professional responsibilities.
Screen time can have positive effects on mental health by helping us maintain our social connections. But it can have negative effects as well, particularly when we get a false sense that other people's lives are better or if we find out we've been left out.
Moderation is key, and making screen time meaningful and high quality will go a long way toward maintaining our mental health, our relationships and keeping our children educated – and entertained.
Christina J Lee, MD, is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente White Marsh Medical Center. Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, P.C. (Permanente) is our network of over 1,500 physicians who practice in our medical centers located in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia.