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Moderating Kids' Time Online Now That Screens Are Here to Stay

How to help your child be a responsible digital consumer.

Key points

  • Screen time is not all good or all bad. Moderation is key.
  • Alternate activities are essential — family walks, picnics, going to the pool, whatever one decides to do that does not include screens.
  • Parents have to model what they want their children to do, which means putting down your own smartphone.

Do you remember your pediatrician asking if the kids were on screens fewer than two hours per day? Prior to the pandemic, research by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media found that 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States use screens for entertainment for an average of 4 hours, 44 minutes a day, and 13- to 18-year-olds are on screens for an average of 7 hours, 22 minutes each day (Rideout & Robb, 2019). We are now emerging from a year and a half of children being on screens for school for 6 hours or more a day, parents working from home online 7-8 hours per day, and both being on screens for social interaction, gaming, and communication in general. Kids and parents are likely to have been on screens for up to 12-14 hours per day!

Most schools are planning for an in-person return this fall, which will be a big change from at-home virtual learning on the computer. Yet, the presence and acceptance of screens have increased tremendously, and many families may not find it so easy to reduce their children’s screen time.

The Issues

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was already a significant push to decrease children’s screen time. Data showed that almost all children were using screens significantly more than recommended by pediatricians, with teens averaging almost 7 hours of entertainment media use per day and tweens averaging almost 5 hours per day, excluding any homework or school work (Rideout & Robb, 2019).

With the onset of COVID-19, almost all school-age children made the switch to virtual learning and remained that way for nearly a year and a half. This increased time on screens by 6 to 8 hours for school and homework time alone. Socially, children and teens also utilized their screens to stay connected, likely pushing their screen time to 10-14 hours per day.

The impact of this increased time on screens is starting to be reported. Some reports focus on virtual schooling's effect on learning, stating that students are at least 3-6 months behind in their academic achievement, with a larger gap for students from minority backgrounds (Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis & Viruleg, 2021), while others focus on the mental health effects. Reports of increased depression and anxiety due to COVID-19 are emerging, and although it is unclear if this is directly related to increased screen time, professionals suspect that it is a contributor, particularly for adolescents who use social media to engage with peers.

In addition, there is emerging medical evidence that increased use of screens can affect sleep (both through disrupting circadian rhythms with blue light) and not wanting to get off the screen at bedtime (Sleep Foundation, 2021). Ophthalmologists are also seeing more children with headaches and blurred vision (AAP, 2021). Online bullying is at an all-time high, as parents don’t have the bandwidth to monitor all the online interactions of their children.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Every child knows how to use a tablet!
Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

However, not all screen time is bad! Families were able to talk and see loved ones during COVID-19 through apps like FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, learning continued, and children and teens could resume their social lives online when it was not safe to be in person.

Screens are here to stay. Managing screen time and helping your children learn to manage their online presence is critical.

How Can Families Manage Screen Time?

Here are several key tips to help you and your family move forward:

Ensure that your children are engaging in basic health behaviors.

Are your children getting enough sleep? Are they getting some physical activity — ideally 60 minutes a day? Are they eating relatively nutritiously? Are they doing other activities such as reading or artwork? Ensuring that your children engage in basic healthy behaviors is the first step.

Be a role model.

Figure out what is acceptable for you. Will you use your laptop for work only? Are you on social media during the daytime? Will you answer a text during dinner? Kids will model their behavior off of your actions, so don’t be the exception to your own rule. If you have a no cellphones at dinner policy, don’t pull yours out for any reason unless it is a potentially life-threatening emergency!

Talk to your kids; share time on screens together to learn about their usage.

Find out what type of screen time that they enjoy, and how they are using screens. There is a difference between using their laptop for homework, and playing “Fortnite." Social media sites have pros and cons and how your child is using screens can make a big difference in your response. In addition, children often know more about the different apps than parents. Take time to sit down and have your children share what sites they are on, show you their profiles and “follow” them if there is the option to do so. For some children, monitoring is a good option, particularly if concerned about safety.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
A small sample of apps available
Source: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Set aside some non-screen time daily for you and your kids.

Practice increasing time with no screens daily. Start with just 15 minutes of other activities. Build up the time that children should be entertaining themselves with other activities that can be restorative. Have a dance party to music, blow bubbles, or take a family walk. Use your creativity to come up with short but fun activities that will help decrease family stress.

Offer additional alternatives to screens including family outings on the weekends. Offer to drive older kids to the pool or to other places to be with their friends in person.

Screen time contracts are your friend.

To help your child have some control over how they spend their screen time, set up a contract. There are fantastic templates from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other parent-friendly organizations. This gives you the opportunity to jointly set the rules, rewards, and consequences.

Again, screens are here to stay. We need to teach our children how to be responsible consumers of different activities on screens.

Technology can be wonderful at times. Our children’s textbooks are digital. Google is the new encyclopedia. Facebook keeps friends (yes, lots of friends) connected. Not all of this is good — but it is not all bad. Depending on the age of your child and your screen time rules, having a monitoring app might be a good idea. However, your child needs to also learn to manage social media and online interactions. It is not an issue of trust, but of safety.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics April, 2021. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/P…

Council on Communications and Media. Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics November 2016, 138 (5) e20162592; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-2592

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, March 1). COVID-19 and learning loss--disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insigh…

Pappas, S. (2020) What do we really know about kids and screens?

Research by psychologists and others is giving us a better understanding of the risks and potential benefits of children’s and teens’ use of digital devices, APA Monitor on Psychology, April 2020, 51(3). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/cover-kids-screens

Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA
https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/2…

Sleep Foundation, January, 2021
https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep/how-blue-light-affec…

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