How parents can manage kids’ screen time as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on
Parents should look out for signs such as lack of sleep, irritability and reclusiveness in kids. If it looks like they’re just passively scrolling on apps like social media, it might be a sign to take a break.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Edwards’ two kids were on a limited screen-time budget. After they got home from school and through their after-school routine, they would get maybe an hour or two a day.
When the pandemic started, Edwards worked from home while the kids’ school was closed, eventually transitioning to online learning. Limits on screen time were tossed out.
Now, her kids’ schools have reopened, and they’ve returned to some of their normal routines. But Edwards, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida, says returning to those screen-time limits has “been like trying to put the toothpaste back in the bottle. The kids have gotten so used to being occupied by their screens that it is now a struggle to get them off the screens.”
COVID-19 led to school closings, which also meant disrupting after-school activities including team sports. Quarantining pushed parents working remotely to relax screen-time rules as they juggled jobs and their kids’ online schooling.
Before the pandemic, 60% of parents said their children spent no more than three hours a day on devices, according to a survey last August of U.S. parents by data intelligence firm Morning Consult. As of August, 70% of parents estimated their kids spent at least four hours a day with screens.
Increased screen time has concerned some parents as the pandemic drags on.
“The additional time they spend online has let them try out all these different platforms, and I’m not familiar with every platform and how to govern it,” Edwards said.
It’s not just parents who want to dial back on screen time.
“There’s less and less for kids to do outside of screens and remote school, and a lot of kids are actually quite burned out on screens,” said Devorah Heitner, an expert on young people’s use of technology and author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) In Their Digital World.”
Before the pandemic, 60% of parents said their children spent no more than three hours a day on devices. As of August, 70% of parents estimated their kids spend at least four hours a day with screens.
Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, says she has talked with parents who “found it difficult to navigate screen-time limits at a time when their children are no longer able to see friends and as online learning continues to become the new normal.”
Kandiss-Jo Tschida, of Phoenix, said her four kids didn’t have as many restrictions with screen time, other than taking away their devices if they got in trouble. Now, she no longer punishes her kids by taking away screen time but pays extra attention to how they use screens.
“I definitely check their browser history a little bit more because you can’t watch them 24/7,” she said.
In Texas, Victor Vega and his wife decided to home-school their three kids during the pandemic in a program that doesn’t require much online learning. They’ve placed tighter limits on when and how long they can use devices, which they adjusted after they noticed their kids weren’t getting as much exercise as they should.
“Now, we try to push gadget time to the very end of the day,” said Vega.
While the battle over the laptop or tablet or video-game console consumes some households, this increased immersion into technology has had some benefits.
Tschida said her daughter has engaged with friends on apps or games like Minecraft. “She’s got social anxiety, and I’ve noticed that she’s actually more social,” she said.
Edwards said her kids have used the opportunity to become better informed, citing “fantastic discussions” during the election sparked by videos on TikTok explaining some of the key political issues.
Here are some tips to find fresh ways to get kids to take a break:
- Think analog. Heitner suggests ditching devices for something more analog, like a book to read or puzzles and board games.
- Create some new routines. Before getting on screens, make sure kids are getting essential activities done like finishing homework and getting regular exercise. Hurst-Della Pietra also advises parents who want to revisit new limits on screens to pull them together as part of a broader family media plan.
- Take those devices at night. Don’t let their screen time affect kids’ health, especially sleep. “That’s the one time where I feel it’s appropriate to have a really hard line,” Heitner said.
- Lead by example. Any analog activities don’t have to be just for kids. Turning things like craft time or board game night into a family event can help.
Hurst Della-Pietra said parents should look out for signs such as lack of sleep, irritability and reclusiveness in kids. If it looks like they’re just passively scrolling on apps like social media, it might be another sign to take a break.
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