Screen Time During A Pandemic: How Much Is Ok?
Do regular screen time limits and rules apply during COVID-19? A recent report by Common Sense Media gives parents new guidelines for 2020…
American tweens spend just under five hours a day on screens for entertainment while American teenagers use them for more than seven hours a day.
Shocked? Those figures don’t include schoolwork and they’re from a report released by Common Sense Media in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic started. There’s no doubt those figures are even higher now and many parents are worrying themselves sick over it.
New York mom Kaitlynn admits that she’s “lost control” of her children’s screen time since the onset of COVID-19 and she often feels anxious about how it will affect their development.
“My daughter is 11 and my son is almost nine,” she says. “Before COVID, I was so strict about their screen time limits. They had to have all their homework and chores done, and then they were allowed exactly one hour a day. I always monitored what they watched and played. Now, they’re on the computer or their iPads for the better part of the day. Maybe six hours a day between remote learning, some educational games and some entertainment that I’ll admit I don’t monitor as closely because I’m so exhausted. Six hours! I just keep thinking about all those studies and worrying that this will affect their brains.”
A new report says old screen time rules don’t apply
Faced with a new normal where screens are suddenly at the epicenter of our children’s lives, Common Sense Media commissioned another report to investigate the effects of increased screen time on American tweens’ and teens’ mental health.
The results are in and we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief. “All screen use is not equal, especially at a time when other avenues of connection and learning are shut off,” Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media, told CNN.
The report urges parents to worry less about screen time and focus on screen quality instead. Digital media should be used as a “social safety net” to keep teenagers connected with their family and friends. Even gaming is considered a valuable way for them to connect socially with their peers when used in moderation.
The best finding of all? Remote learning doesn’t count as screen time. Even the more conservative American Academy of Pediatrics supports this recommendation.
“That does make me feel a little better,” says Kaitlynn. “But it does seem like a huge 180 compared to previous guidelines. What about all those studies that say screens make our kids depressed and anxious? I feel a bit better, but I can’t help but worry still.”
Screen time might not be the real culprit
Because the use of digital technology and mental health issues in teens have both risen over the past decade, the media and even health professionals have made countless claims about the dangers of too much screen time.
But the Common Sense Media report takes a deep dive into the research and pokes holes in the assumption that the overuse of digital technology causes anxiety and depression in teens. While it might seem like a natural conclusion to draw, causal evidence is lacking.
One of the main problems is that most studies fail to differentiate between screen time and social media use. A Canadian study found that computers and video games didn’t increase depressive symptoms in teens because they’re interactive and they don’t push teenagers to compare themselves to others. Frequent television and social media use, however, were linked with depression.
The study also found that teens who were more prone to depression saw an increase in their symptoms as their social media use went up. They tended to view more content that validated their depressed state of mind, suggesting a spiral for susceptible teenagers.
More long-term studies are needed to get a clearer picture of just how screen time and social media use might affect teenagers’ mental health. But one thing is clear: children from low-income households and vulnerable communities are at higher risk.
Not only do they have less reliable access to online spaces, they also have less supervision and support within them and report more negative online experiences. They may be more vulnerable to adverse mental health outcomes related not only to their screen use, but to a complex web of social factors.
How can we help our children get the right balance of screen time and quality?
Here are a few simple steps parents can take to help their children have positive online experiences.
Focus on quality
Use trusted sources to find positive online content for your children. We’ve compiled a list of the best educational apps, games and TV shows. Common Sense Media also has a wonderful list of movies, books and games the whole family can enjoy.
Establish a family media plan
Instead of setting strict screen time limits, sit down as a family and create a media plan. Your plan should outline acceptable social media platforms, websites and games for each family member. You might also establish that you need to share access to some accounts and regularly review younger children’s online activity. Involving your children in the process will give them a sense of control and make them more likely to stick to the plan.
Encourage a balance of online and offline activities
Screen time rules might be relaxing, but it’s still important to encourage children to engage in a range of activities and get some exercise. Get the whole family involved in a board game, go for a walk, read books together, have a dance party or bake some healthy treats.
Check in with your children regularly
Have regular discussions with your children about how they’re feeling and what they’re getting up to online. If you feel that their online activity is affecting them negatively, adjust your family media plan.
A note on blue light
While the additional screen time might not be as bad as we feared, the exposure to blue light from screens can adversely affect children’s sleep. Poor sleep can in turn lead to anxiety, depression, diabetes and a range of other health issues.
To minimize the negative effects of blue light, have your children wear blue light blocking glasses whenever they’re using screens. The RA Optics Baby Blue Light Blocking Glasses are specially designed for children aged one to seven.
The Tot’s favorite screen-free activities
Need some screen-free entertainment inspo? Check out these three amazing products…
This engaging set includes four fun games wrapped up in a tin box. Ages 3 and up.
Hours of coloring fun are guaranteed with Crayon Rocks’ non-toxic set of 64 soy wax crayons. Ages 6 to 12.
This set of flexible magnetic pieces will light your child for hours as thy turn flat 2D shapes into fabulous 3D creations!
This award-winning set of three games is designed to promote memory, matching and focus. Ages 3 and up.
Need more suggestions to keep your kids entertained at home? Read: