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Should You Feel Guilty About Your Child’s Screen Time?

Consider new rules for screen time during COVID-19.

Concerns about excessive screen time clearly predate the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even in homes where screen time had previously been forbidden or severely restricted, remote online learning has become commonplace. And quarantining, social distancing, and safety measures resulting from COVID-19 have made screen time a more essential part of work, education, and leisure.

Although experts (including myself) have advised parents to loosen their limits on screen time during the pandemic, many parents feel guilty about their children’s screen time—sometimes with good reason. They not only feel uncomfortable that their kids need more screen time but also see how little they know about what their kids are doing online and how they themselves might be modeling problematic screen behavior.

Parent encouraging screen time.
Source: malininaolgaphoto/twenty20photos

Parental concerns about excessive screen time may be more pronounced during COVID-19, but they have been with us for many years. In 2015, the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, surveyed nearly 2,000 adults and found that excessive screen time was the children’s health issue that concerned parents the most. Another 2015 study by Common Sense Media confirmed that parents were right to worry. This study suggested the stereotypical images of teens staring at their phones even as they sat together represents reality. Even before schoolwork and homework are factored in, mobile device usage accounts for nearly half of the six to nine hours tweens and teens spend engaged with technology daily.

Critics have been quick to blame technology, media companies, and a host of modern sociocultural norms for children's excessive screen time. There is a lot of money to be made from digital media and screen time. The five largest companies in the United States (as measured by market capitalization) are Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook—all media companies that benefit directly from increasing amounts of children’s screen time.

And who is responsible for protecting these kids? In many ways, it isn't the media companies. It's up to parents to step up, learn more about what their kids are doing with screens, better understand the pros and cons of screen time, and model a balance between screen time and the rest of their lives.

Relaxing screen time limits during the pandemic is a realistic response to a world where face-to-face interactions need to be limited. The traditionally strict American Academy of Pediatrics recently altered its screen time recommendations during COVID-19 and suggests focusing on the quality of children’s screen time with the caveat that parents need to be more involved.

Parents are the front line to kids’ use of technology pre- and post-COVID. They are buying their children smartphones at increasingly younger ages; the average age of children getting a smartphone is 10.3 years. They control access to the internet at home and pay for the cell phone plans their kids use. The vast majority are well aware of the addictive draw of interactive digital media because they frequently experience it themselves.

Even as they recognize the risks of internet access, parents often feel helpless or choose to do little about these potential dangers. Screen-based technologies are not going away and will increasingly become our primary tools for learning about and communicating with our world, but when kids spend too much time with technology, they are not spending time playing, creating, exercising, experiencing nature, and building relationships.

With this in mind, what can you do?

Be a positive model. Thanks to a much talked about Common Sense Media study, we now know that most teens average nine hours a day of screen time. While concerning, that figure starts to make sense when we place it next to the results of a more recent Common Sense Media study that found that parents also consume an average of nine hours of screen time a day. While we complain that our kids don't pay attention to us, they see us when we check text messages, binge watch shows on Netflix, and haunt social media. If you spend the majority of your free time engaged with screen-based technologies, your kids are likely to do the same.

Know what your kids are doing online. One of the more difficult aspects of digital-age parenting is that kids often know more about technology than their parents do. Our kids are masters of the newest games, apps, and social media platforms before we've even heard of them. Not only are children better able to adapt to and navigate the digital world, but many parents also seem to have resigned themselves to the idea that they are incapable of keeping up with technology.

In a survey conducted by the preschool TV network Sprout, 92 percent of parents admitted that they don’t know enough about the technologies their children are using. No wonder our kids find it so easy to work around parental guidelines and controls. Parents who play video games with their kids, require connections on social media, and take the time to talk with their kids about media report more confidence in their kids’ judgment about their screen-time use.

Make screen time worthwhile for your kids. There are significant academic, social, and skill-building benefits to screen time. Children seem to learn better from game-based lessons and when engaged with technology in general. Studies have shown how one hour of video-game play a day can actually be good for a child's psychological adjustment. And that “hour per day” is the key: setting limits should be about finding a balance between screen time and other activities in a healthy “Play Diet.”

The bottom line: Just as we are responsible for our children’s nutrition and physical wellbeing, we play the key role in balancing their screen time with other activities, setting effective and respectful limits, modeling appropriate technology usage, keeping them safe online, and being actively involved in their digital lives.