Rethinking your child’s relationship with screens during the pandemic

Kids are consuming more media now that they’re stuck at home. Guess what? That’s OK.

Monday, 13 April 2020,
By Christine Dell'Amore
Photograph by Maskot / Getty Images

You’re trying to figure out your 18th video conference call of the day—and you’re not the only one who’s been on their screen for hours. Despite your best efforts to encourage reading and crafting while maintaining some semblance of screen time limits, your kids still just want to veg out on videos. Are your children’s brains going to turn to mush by the time this is all over?

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend family routines across the globe, it’s also intensifying our relationship with media in unprecedented ways. But to all the parents wracked with worry about letting their kids watch TV while cooped up at home, experts say: Relax.

Even though some studies have shown links between heavy media use and delays in language, increased rates of obesity, and sleep problems, experts agree that now is not the time to fret over such research. “There’s no reason to add to the stress of this current moment with more guilt about using technology,” says Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician at the University of Michigan and the author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for media use. “Guilt doesn’t help us plan. Instead, think about: What does my family need right now?”

Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor for Common Sense Media, echoes a similar sentiment: Make your focus your relationship with your children, not how much they’re consuming media.

“As long as you’re having meaningful interactions with your kids throughout the day, it’s OK,” she says.

Rethinking ‘screen time’

First, Radesky would like to hit reset on the term “screen time:” It doesn’t really define the fraught relationship between technology and your children. The focus, she says, shouldn’t be the duration of time, but how technology is inserting itself into our lives and routines. “Is it helpful or not helpful?” she asks.

After all, not all screen time is the same: “Skyping with grandparents is different from watching a cartoon,” she adds, explaining that social interactions aren’t even considered “screen time” by the AAP.

That’s why Radesky suggests that parents schedule screen time for different purposes, such as learning, social connections, and positive entertainment, while also planning off-screen time for activities such as cooking, getting outside, and spending time with pets.

Radesky hasn’t come up with a pithy term to replace screen time, but “intentional media use” comes close, she says. “If your child is going to be using technology for a lot of the day, try to make it more social, positive, and problem-solving,” she says. That could be video-chatting with cousins or classmates, or watching television programs that engage children’s thinking skills, such as shows on the BBC. 

Don’t be a micromanager

The most effective way to manage kids’ screen time is to essentially lead from behind. Radesky advises giving them parameters but also some say in their daily lives.

The first step is to be transparent and give your children some context for why they should regulate their screen use. “We’re going to make sure it doesn’t take up our whole day because we want to do more together” is much more acceptable to kids than just “Put down that tablet.”

With that context established, a parent might then give their kid the autonomy to decide when she watches a TV show and when she goes outside for a walk. (Check out these learning resources and educational articles from National Geographic.)

“They enjoy being able to self-determine,” Radesky says. Providing this opportunity to kids also develops their executive functioning—crucial mental skills that include making decisions, following directions, critical thinking, and controlling one’s behaviour.

One rule not open to negotiation, however: Children should put tablets or computers out of sight when they’re not in use. Radesky says letting a child carry his device with him around the house can entice him to look at it whenever he’s feeling bored.

Use media as a jumping-off point

Both experts recommend using media as a springboard for real-life activities. For instance, parents can suggest plenty of books about Minecraft that their children can read, Knorr says.

“I look for things that are more participatory and help kids use their imagination,” she says. Recommendations include the iNaturalist Seek app and the Grasshopper coding app. 

Especially for younger children, Radesky recommends transferring what they see in 2D to 3D. For example, after watching a nature documentary, the child can then act out a scene with toy animals. “We want their minds to drive what happens next,” she says.

For older kids, Knorr suggests that parents talk to their children about the content of video games or apps they’re using, as well as how that media makes them feel. “Encouraging kids to think critically about the media they’re exposed to” means that parents stay informed and that kids feel like they’re not simply consuming media just because all their friends are doing it.

Staying in touch with emotions

Though media can be a positive force, too often it serves as an emotional escape. When overwhelmed, both parents and kids might distract themselves with technology to avoid their feelings.

To prevent screens from becoming a coping strategy for children, make sure to continue to talk to them about their feelings. “You don’t want technology to displace important moments when your child might instead need to say, I’m really mad, I’m really worried about Grandpa and Grandma, or I’m really overwhelmed,” Radesky says. “It’s so much easier to parent your children when you understand what drives their emotions and behaviour.”

Parents should also be alert for any changes in their child’s behaviour during this uncertain time, such as becoming more withdrawn or angry, or refusing to do schoolwork. These are signs they might be consuming too much media. “You know your kid best,” Knorr says.

But even the best advice won’t prevent a technology give-in when you’re logging on to that 18th video conference call. And that’s OK. Says Radesky: “I would say to exhausted parents in survival mode to take it easy on themselves.”

And maybe watch a Hulu show of their own.

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