How to manage your kids’ screen time during coronavirus

Enticing—for parents and kids alike.
Enticing—for parents and kids alike.
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Last Monday, I found myself sitting down to watch TV with my six-month-old for the first time ever. We spent ten minutes watching the BBC children’s show Bing, which has gained popularity worldwide for its “gentle” approach.

It’s not the first time my son has watched TV. His grandmother and father have snuck in some viewing time while caring for him. Nail cutting is done to a few minutes of Sesame Street. But I’ve largely been a hold-out, a follower of the advice that children under two shouldn’t be watching screens, and that screen time should be limited as he becomes a toddler.

But in the gap between snack time and the start of his bedtime routine, feeling anxious and stressed by coronavirus news, I needed a break. Turning on the TV wasn’t much of one, given how guilty I felt.

Efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 have disrupted family life, leaving millions of parents around the world to grapple with home schooling, online learning, and the anxiety surrounding social distancing and quarantines. As a result, it’s natural that the amount of time children spend watching screens will increase. But how much have the rules changed? And how can parents balance managing their kids’ tech use with work, restrictions on socializing and being outdoors, and their own mental health?

An optimal day for children, according to the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth, involves a mix of physical activity, unrestrained play, a big chunk of sleep—and a very limited amount of time on screens. For children ages five to 17, the guideline is two hours or less. For toddlers and preschoolers over two years old, it’s one hour. For younger children, “sedentary screen time is not recommended.”

Even before coronavirus, many children in developed countries such as the US exceeded these guidelines, prompting a searching debate over the impact of tech on children’s rapidly developing brains, and whether parents should be concerned about the possibility of tech addiction. Quartz reporter Jenny Anderson discussed why this debate is critical, particularly for young children:

Research shows that screen time interferes with fundamental factors in healthy child development: sleep, healthy eating, and so-called “serve and return” moments between parents and children, in which parents respond to babies seeking assurance and connection with eye contact, smiles, and conversation, and which help lay the foundations of baby’s brains.

While giving children more time on screens right now might be a matter of survival for many parents, they can still take steps to mitigate the screens’ impact.

Be flexible

Start by giving yourself a break. “We don’t say, ‘throw all your rules out the window,’ but you can definitely be looser,” says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on media and tech use. “While parents are trying to figure out how to run the household under the new conditions, it’s fine to allow more screen time than usual,” Knorr advises, as long as it’s age-appropriate.

Screen time for children under 18 months is still not advised, says Nusheen Ameenuddin, a pediatrician who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media. But, says Knorr, depending on individual circumstances, “a little screen time won’t hurt them as long as you’re interacting with them in other meaningful ways throughout the day.”

“I’ve been telling parents that their number one job right now is managing their own emotions so that they can clear their heads up and effectively manage their households,” says Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the Univeristy of Michigan. “If this means having your infant watch an episode of Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger, I certainly wouldn’t want parents feeling guilty about that. But use the time well. Stretch, do yoga, call a friend, or send emails. Don’t spend it doing the things that might stress you out, such as reading the news.”

“No one is expecting perfection, especially under these circumstances,” says Ameenuddin.

Create structure for time online and offline

In a Twitter thread that every parent should read, Radesky advises parents to involve children in setting limits on their tech use, and to monitor their own tech activity in front of children, too. She also suggests creating a routine for off-screen activity—there are enormous health benefits that come with replacing tech time with play, sleep, or outdoor activity.

“We urge parents to preserve offline experiences, which help families connect emotionally, process difficult experiences, and heal,” Radesky wrote. “Find offline activities that help your family calm down and communicate—physical, creative, or playful. Create the space for family members to talk about their worries.”

I shared with Radesky how my bout of TV watching was brought on by a moment of stress. She advised me to consider finding other ways to relax with my son. “Parent-infant yoga, taking walks with the infant in a carrier or stroller, playing games, or snuggling and reading books are all really important for your wellness and immune system.”

Mark Tremblay is the director of healthy active living and obesity research at the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa, and lead architect of the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, which emphasize the importance of physical activity, sufficient sleep, and movement to overall health. He believes that it’s critical for families to pay attention right now to what he calls “the fundamental laws of health: eat well, sleep well, move well.”

“We need to adhere to these guidelines more rigorously than ever, now and forever,” Tremblay says. “They are an insurance policy against challenges like this.”

Check the content

When kids are in front of screens, the media they’re consuming needs to be age-appropriate and shouldn’t be endlessly streaming, Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told the Hechinger Report. Make sure watching isn’t an “all day thing,” and that the media has a beginning and an end. “That is going to be better for kids than YouTube, for instance, which never ends,” Golin added.

Here is a chance for parents and caregivers to get creative and explore: “For school-age and older children, perhaps screen time could involve something creative like taking a virtual tour of another country or a museum. It could mean a scavenger hunt online or trying to answer a  burning question they have using digital resources,” suggests Ameenuddin.

And keep an eye on the socializing your children might be doing via screens as well. Gaming, social media, and instant messaging are fertile playgrounds for bullies.

Watch together when you can

Experts also suggest that parents watch media with their children when they can, and talk through what they’re seeing.

“For younger children, having parents engage in educational media with the child can be a good way to bond and to reinforce what they learn after the fact,” Ameenuddin says.

This type of “co-viewing” can have positive effects, writes Michael Robb, the director of research at Common Sense Media. “It can support early literacy skills, boost empathy, and even help manage aggression after exposure to violent media.” The quality of that interaction is important though; Robb lists a number of ways for caregivers to co-view with children, from focusing their attention, to talking through the content and making it relatable.

Use the screen to connect

As social distancing creates barriers between families, friends, and communities, video chatting has become an important way to connect. Luckily, the American Academy of Pediatrics is on board with this type of engagement.

“Using Skype or FaceTime to interact…is a healthy way to be productive with screen time,” says Ameenuddin. “Giving relatives a chance to connect even with the youngest members of your family can be beneficial for everyone.”

Inspired by the flood of people turning to video calls to connect, I’ll be swapping sitting on the couch watching Bing blankly with my son for an online version of our local weekly singalong. People will interrupt each other, babies will cry, and singing and dancing will be uncoordinated. It won’t be our regular Twinkle Toes meet-up, but it’ll do for now.