Unfortunately, we can’t pause the pandemic—indeed, COVID-19 numbers are still fluctuating and there is still a high amount of uncertainty—but we can take a moment to reflect on the impact it has had on our children and families, especially in terms of how digital media use has affected young people.
What does the increase in screen time mean for kids’ long-term development, and their mental, physical, and emotional health? What COVID-era practices should we continue even after things return to “normal”? Are there any silver linings from the pandemic that can enrich family life? (The answer is: yes!). After living through a few years of the pandemic, scientists, parents, educators, and kids have learned many valuable lessons. Check out their top ten tips below.
1. Screen Time Blues
“The pandemic greatly shaped youth relationships with digital media,” reports Susan Tapert, PhD. “The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study examined thousands of 11–14-year-olds throughout the pandemic. Screen time increased, especially the use of social media and multi-player gaming, and this accelerated usage was linked to a poorer sense of well-being. The biggest predictors of youth depression during the pandemic included exposure to racism or discrimination and, for girls, having pre-pandemic depression or anxiety. However, maintaining exercise and routines, relationships, and sleep helped promote resilience during stressful times.”
2. Persist With Pandemic Positives
One intriguing result of the pandemic is how this experience has fostered meaningful familial interactions through video chat platforms. “Consider continuing this with regular digital-visits with loved ones, like weekly FaceTime meet-ups with grandma or morning Zoom playdates with a cousin,” suggests Stephanie M. Reich, PhD Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine. “Another fruitful change has been the slow-down from the busyness of school, activities, work, etc., and the increase in family time surrounding mealtime and playful interactions. As the world opens up, strive to safeguard this family time, and utilize more of the new digital helpers to free up time, like online shopping, video-conferencing for work meetings, and food delivery services.”
3. Take a Break
“Even though it has been more than a year and a half since the pandemic began, families are still learning how to adjust to this new reality,” comments Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D. psychologist and Professor at Duke University School of Medicine. “As such, families are making new rules around the use of screen time. Be sure that screen time breaks are built in for movement activities (e.g., taking a walk, playing with pets, family dance party, etc.), quiet time (e.g., drawing or writing, listening to music, reading, relaxation or meditation), and family time (e.g., eating together, playing a game or completing a puzzle, cooking together, or taking a walk). It’s also good to remember screen time is never a substitute for quality time with caring adults and friends.”
4. Create Device Free Zone
Now that in person activities are possible again, it’s time to evaluate just how much devices have taken over daily routines and activities that would be better done without devices. “An example would be family meals, which benefit everyone much more when devices aren’t present,” offers Licensed Psychologist Nicole Beurkens, PhD, CNS. “Get back in the habit of leaving devices in the other room when everyone comes to the table – this includes adults! Other examples include no devices in the bedroom (a definite no-no during the night), while playing outside, or during homework time (when a device isn’t required).”
“Over the past eighteen months, children’s technology usage has nearly doubled,” reports Brenda K Wiederhold, PhD, MBA, BCB, BCN, Editor-in-Chief of CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. “Even the American Academy of Pediatrics, who had previously endorsed strict limits on screen time, recommended rethinking the rules secondary to pandemic restrictions,” Wiederhold adds. “Using screens to connect with people is a positive aspect of technology use during social distancing. As we emerge from the pandemic life, however, it may be helpful for parents to revisit rules that guide children’s screen time, like setting time limits. Parents can also model healthy behaviors and usage to help their children understand that technology isn’t a replacement for social connections.”
6. Get in the Game
Like many screen time rules, video gaming parameters may have been relaxed during the pandemic. As we pause to reflect on the pandemic so far, take time to understand what video game play looks like for your children, and adjust as needed. “Talk with your children about what they do in the game and how they think about the content, and make sure your children understand rules about online safety,” recommends Jennifer Manganello, Professor at the University at Albany School of Public Health. “Consider setting rules about when your child can play and for how long. You may also want to listen in on game play to find out if there are any bullying or other issues occurring.”
7. Bridge Online and Offline Worlds
Beyond avoiding violent, harmful content, good screen time enhances a child’s life. One tip that doesn’t require time trackers, rules, rewards or punishments, is a method called ‘bridging,’ explains Jean Rogers, M.S.Ed., CPE. “Bridging uses screen time to get kids off screens, and it includes ‘how-to’ videos and online classes. For instance, kids can go online to learn to teach their dog to roll over, and then they go offline to try. Bridging can start either online or off, and it’s defined by activity that has a real-world component.”
8. Train Resilience
According to Vicki Harrison, MSW, Program Director at the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing, supporting our kids to endure adversity will be more beneficial to them than attempting to shield them from it. “The resilience and coping skills that they were forced to develop over the past 18 months will serve as emotional immunity, hopefully helping them to be more successful in overcoming future adversity that they encounter,” Harrison posits. However, division and verbal assaults increased over the past year, especially in online spaces. Parents must actively monitor and engage with their children to help them process what they are being exposed to; and to choose and model kindness for their children as much as possible.”
9. Savor Life in the Slow Lane
It is important for families to slow down and spend time together each day, allowing time for kids and parents to communicate and check in. “This can be 10-15 minutes, where our kids have our undivided attention, and we have theirs,” adds Jennifer M. Katzenstein, PhD, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “During this time, there are no screens, no distractions, but rather an open-ended question asking how things are going, then sitting in the silence and being present with our kids. The goal here is to sit quietly and let our kids share with us what is going on.”
As the world re-opens, it is important for parents to be thoughtful about new and continuing routines for their families, and know the power of screen time as it relates to your children. Harness the positives like video calls with your extended family; use the bridging technique to get your children active; and find ways to use digital platforms to foster real-time connections. Also, be mindful of the dangers of digital overload; create device-free zones and enticing screen breaks; and engage in meaningful familial connections away from those devices.
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, informing and educating the public, advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness, and enhancing human capital in the field. For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.