Managing Kids’ Screen Time During Covid-19
Dr. Lindsay Malloy, Co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
A few years ago, I was waiting for my sick toddler to be seen at our pediatrician’s office. After three hours of waiting and attempting to entertain my toddler in every way possible, the doctor family came in. She took one look at my daughter, who was sitting on my lap watching videos on my phone, and snapped, “Don’t you know that’s the worst possible thing for her brain?”
I’m a developmental psychologist: I teach about child development at the university level and conduct research on children’s cognitive and social development. So I knew that, in fact, screens were not the “worst possible thing” for my toddler’s brain. I also knew that I was on hour three of losing my mind in a cramped room with a sick and cranky toddler who was supposed to be napping, and I finally resorted to my phone after one too many games, books, songs, and attempts at keeping my toddler from licking the floors of the doctor’s office.
Still, I felt intense shame in that moment. My face reddened, and I stammered out some kind of response that I can’t even remember. Only later, after leaving the office, did I come up with all the things I could’ve/would’ve/should’ve said in response.
Is screen time for kids really as bad as so many seem to think?
Recently, we hosted a Pandemic Parenting webinar on screen time – one of the most discussed topics among those caring for kids of all ages throughout the pandemic. Three leading experts in this area of study joined us, and you can watch the full hour here. Here are five key takeaways from our conversation:
1. Quality matters – not just quantity.
One of the key questions that parents want to know is “How much is too much screen time? Just give me a number!” But maybe we are asking the wrong question.
More and more, researchers are studying and emphasizing the impact of quality versus quantity. Although parents everywhere want to know the “magical number” that is acceptable so they can try to stay within that, but this is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that not all screen time is created equally. Some digital activities are more interactive than passive. Other times, parents desperately need the 30-minute break to catch their breath, attend to their mental health, or be able to re-engage with their children in calmer ways. Experts in the field encourage parents to think about not just the amount of screen time, but the type of screen time children are engaging in and what that screen time is replacing.
2. Make screen time meaningful whenever you can.
Screen time can create opportunities for human connection – and I’m not just referring to Zoom or FaceTime. Enjoying a family movie together can be quality bonding time. Of course, you might not be able to sit and watch cartoons with your kids from beginning to end. But you probably have time to pop your head in and make a comment or ask a question, connecting with your child about what they’re watching before returning to making dinner, for example. It’s not always possible but, when you can, try to avoid your child passively watching on their own for long periods of time.
3. Be a critical (and accurate) consumer of research on screen time.
The media loves an eye-catching screen time headline because this is such a hot topic and is sure to draw parents and others in. More provocative headlines = more clicks.
However, accurate reporting and consumption of research findings can be a real problem, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen headlines that tell readers how screen time “caused” this or that. Be wary of any headlines or articles that imply causation. Most research on screen time is correlational in nature, meaning that screen time may be associated with a certain outcome but that doesn’t mean that it caused a certain outcome.
As I tell my students, ice cream consumption and the murder rate are also highly correlated; yet, I think we can all agree that one does not cause the other. There is great research out there on screen time. I encourage you to seek out those original sources, rather than relying on quick (and potentially even misleading) media snapshots of research findings.
4. Develop a family media plan.
Having a family media plan – customized screen time guidelines for the family – in place can help ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to screen time. Kids are not the only ones who benefit from having a family media plan to follow – remember that, as parents, we are constantly modeling for our kids what engagement with (and disengagement from) screens looks like. As Dr. Jonathan Comer noted in our screen time webinar, if you can’t stop checking your work emails during dinner, then it may be harder to convince your teen to bow out of their group chat at mealtime.
To increase “buy-in” with the family media plan, I recommend creating it together. Especially for older kids and teens, encouraging and empowering them to weigh in on this family decision will make them feel heard and supported, while increasing the likelihood that they will stick to the plan. Keep in mind that the family media plan isn’t set in stone and may need to be tweaked at times, like during winter or summer breaks.
5. Remember that there are benefits of screen time.
Like with most aspects of parenting and life in general, I try to live by an “all things in moderation” philosophy. Kids benefit when we set reasonable boundaries and limits for their behavior – screen time included. That said, there is no doubt that screen time has developed a bad reputation and many parents feel judged around this issue. Most articles on the topic emphasize the downsides only. Although it’s critical to be aware of and understand the potential downsides, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.
Particularly in the COVID-19 era, there are many benefits of screen time, including connection with friends and family and critical access to mental health services. The benefits must be considered; we must weigh the cons and pros in our individual calculus of what works best for our families.
Whether it’s in relation to screen time or any of the countless other decisions parents have had to make throughout the pandemic, I encourage you to grant yourself some grace and embrace flexibility just as I wish our pediatrician would have done for me that day.