Effective Screen Time Limits During the COVID-19 Quarantine
Healthy "play diets" and new habits require 66 days—the length of quarantine.
Posted May 5, 2020
Experts argue that kids should have more screen time during the quarantine. Physicians and psychologists who previously argued that excessive screen time is a major health concern support allowing more screen time to combat the stress of sheltering in place. There seems to be a general consensus that kids will not be damaged by spending two to three hours a day on recreational screen time during the quarantine.
The World Health Organization, which previously warned parents about the dangers of being sedentary, has suggested that more video-game play can help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Other experts view additional screen time as a way to keep sanity and equanimity in households being shared 24/7 and where many parents work at home, monitor their child's schoolwork, and take care of basic necessities. I believe that kids should have more screen time during the quarantine, with the caveat that parents expect other daily activities to be part of a child’s “play diet.”
My rationale: a simple mathematical premise. Kids are having to spend far more time indoors without other obligations than at any time in the past century and are limited in their ability to participate in their usual non-screen activities. Hanging out with friends face to face, playing team or individual sports, being at school eight hours a day, having family outings to shop or eat, and so many other out of the home activities have been drastically curtailed, leaving kids with many more hours to occupy themselves. And check in with your children if you think that remote schooling is taking up their time, as this likely occupies them for only three to four hours a day. By my estimation, after sleeping for nine hours; doing schoolwork for four hours; doing chores for one hour; and being engaged in eating, bathing, and other self-care for one hour, children are left with nine hours for other house-bound activities.
This excess of free indoor time presents many challenges to parents and kids. Youngsters who love their screen time may initially have been more than happy to play video games all day, engage in non-stop social media, or binge on Netflix or YouTube, but even they are getting bored. However, extra time can provide an opportunity for kids to engage in other activities beyond these choices.
I see the quarantine as an opportunity for parents to establish a healthy and balanced “play diet” for their kids and themselves. A healthy play diet is a balance of many activities and does not rely on screen time, or digital play, as the primary play activity of the child. Instead, it includes substantial doses of physical, social, creative, and unstructured play. During the quarantine, the lack of other options and the accessibility of screen-based activities make excessive screen time an even greater concern than in normal circumstances. However, unless you want your children to spend most of their nonschool waking hours in front of a screen, it’s important to learn how to expect, promote, and maintain a healthy play diet during this time. This would require attention, effort, creativity, and your direct involvement, but would be worthwhile.
Here are a set of guidelines to engage your kids in more physical, social, creative, and unstructured play during the quarantine:
Social play. It's pretty simple: socializing by screen has become the new normal, so I’d not only let it go, I’d encourage it. During the quarantine, nudge your kids to participate in social media tools where they can see their friends in real time. Kids have been using House Party as a face-to-face social network, and Discord is frequently used for talking during gameplay but can also be used for video chat. Zoom is simple to use (even for adults) for live video chats with friends and family. Bottom line, keep your kids socializing, even if most of it is online.
Physical play. This is the most difficult type of play during the quarantine due to restrictions on being in large groups and the closure of virtually all indoor facilities and many outdoor places for exercise. You’ll need to be creative. Take regular hikes from your house, map out and explore unfamiliar neighborhoods, bike more freely on roads that are less busy due to reduced traffic. You can also use screen time as a tool for exercise. Online exercise videos from YouTube for yoga, exercise, and dance could help your kids work up a sweat. Play an exergame such as Just Dance 2020 or access some grueling exercise games that use virtual reality headsets.
Creative play. Start with the basics. Buy supplies for drawing, coloring, sculpting, doing crafts, or whatever mode engages your child. Cook, plant a garden, take up a new musical instrument, or improve on skills by taking online lessons. Many screen-time activities are very creative, such as making videos for TikTok or YouTube or learning coding or game-making skills on Roblox or Scratch.
Unstructured play. Play without goals. Relax, meditate, go out into nature, and pay attention to what you see. Join your kids on a tour of the present. Developing a mindfulness practice is easier if you have the time. Step back with your kids to appreciate what you have. This all sounds easy, but it’s not, it needs to be deliberate. Have your older kids and teens use a meditation app such as Headspace or Calm.
Digital play. The key is to keep kids from using screen time excessively during the quarantine. Check out how to use screen time to promote “Whole Play” to engage in a healthy play diet or read some of my other posts to learn how to leverage digital play into other activities.