How to Manage Kids’ Screen Time During the COVID-19 Pandemic

With children’s time on devices surging, here are six ways parents can handle tech habits in the household and, yes, cut themselves some slack.

girl on laptop, on of many children experiencing increased scree time during the COVID-19 outbreak
girl on laptop, on of many children experiencing increased scree time during the COVID-19 outbreak

With schools shifting to remote learning and many summer camps canceled or going virtual, kids are using screens — from tablets and computers to smartphones and TVs — at least 50% more than they were before the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey by SuperAwesome, a tech company focused on kids digital media. It’s true that too much screen time, especially for young kids, may affect certain aspects of their development, but with COVID-19 preventing 70% of the world’s students from entering a classroom and parents dealing with reduced child care options and fewer social outings, increased screen time is unavoidable. So, what are parents to do?

Throw out the rulebook, one expert says.

“All of the previous concerns we had about screen time for children have been completely flipped upside down,” says Dr. Jennifer Cross, an attending pediatrician and a developmental and behavioral pediatrics expert at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital. “Everything is now over the screen — school lessons, play dates, interactions with family members, birthday parties — so screen-time rules have to be completely redefined since this is how most children are learning and socializing.”

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Cross, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, on ways parents can shift their expectations about their kids’ screen time while maintaining healthy habits.

Here are six things to keep in mind:

Portrait of Dr. Jennifer Cross

Dr. Jennifer Cross

1. Understand that screen time is much more than entertainment now.

While kids are spending much more time on screens these days, it’s important to remember that connected devices aren’t just being used for downtime. In fact, they have morphed into interactive, learning modules and tools to engage with loved ones. “Screens have become the way kids interact with the world,” says Dr. Cross. “It’s how they are engaging with family members, friends, teachers, and classmates. To view screen time as the same as it was before COVID-19 is just not feasible.”

All young children need plenty of opportunities for socializing and learning, even if it has to be on a screen, reminds Dr. Cross. With this in mind, she encourages parents to think a bit differently when it comes to screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to give themselves permission to relax a little about old screen-time rules.

2. Focus on quality and variety.

There’s a lot of programming for children out there, so it’s wise to stick with the shows you know and trust. For younger children, opt for educational programming like Sesame Street. It’s also worth placing more attention on slower-paced shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, rather than super-stimulating cartoons with lots of action and little dialogue. Slower-paced shows are more like real-life scenarios, which may help keep overstimulation at bay.

Variety is crucial for a developing, growing brain. “If they’re watching a cartoon or educational program in the morning, then try to switch it up in the afternoon with some kind of interactive online activity,” suggests Dr. Cross. Check out trusted sources like PBS Kids, which sends out a daily newsletter with show and activity ideas, or “Google local museums, aquariums, or zoos to see if they’re offering some virtual tours or streaming programs you can take advantage of,” says Dr. Cross.

Don’t forget to incorporate non-screen-time activities into the day when you can: “If your schedule allows, go for a quick family walk around midday to get some physical activity. This is also the time to bust out all the coloring books, art supplies, Legos, puzzles, even audiobooks and podcasts — anything that gives them some variety,” advises Dr. Cross.

3. Stick to a schedule.

Even though we’re stuck at home more, it’s still important to adhere to a routine and a consistent schedule. “I’d recommend parents follow the same routine that they would in terms of getting ready for work,” says Dr. Cross. “Don’t spend the day in your pajamas. Have your meals at a set time, and get outside at least once every day.” The same goes for screen time: Even if it’s happening more than usual, build a schedule for it to set expectations. Kids respond better when there is structure to a day rather than a free-for-all.

4. Don’t forget to engage.

Whenever you can, talk with your child and ask about what they’re watching and learning. For parents working from home, this will be tricky, so it means getting creative, such as carving out time at the end of each day to catch up. There are also countless apps, educational games, and online activities children can engage with that are interactive and involve more participation than staring at a screen. Common Sense Media is one resource to spark ideas for follow-up questions and conversation starters.

5. Use it for exercise every day.

Physical activity remains critical for kids’ development and well-being, and ideally they should get outside to exercise or play every day. “Even though it’s not as easy, you still want to build in some physical activity each day,” says Dr. Cross. If you can’t get outdoors as often as you’d like or if the weather’s not great, look up dance videos or exercise videos you can do together. GoNoodle videos are wildly popular with young kids for fun movement activities and yoga and mindfulness exercises. “It’s a good way for kids to burn off steam,” says Dr. Cross. “You’re still in front of a screen, but at least you’re exercising and doing something together.”

6. Prioritize screen-free family time.

While it’s OK to be more lenient about screen time during the pandemic, “it’s still valuable to incorporate screen-free time for the whole family, particularly around mealtimes,” says Dr. Cross. Technology shouldn’t replace sleep, outdoor exercise, reading, or family time. “As long as you schedule in family time — whether it’s going for a walk, cooking dinner together, playing an evening board game, or reading at bedtime — it helps to balance out all that screen time.”

At the end of the day, cut yourself some slack. “This is such an unusual situation, so the last thing you want to do is get overly stressed out about how much time your child is spending on a screen,” says Dr. Cross. “Everybody should forgive themselves for not being able to be quite as good as they would normally be. And that is OK. Just do the best you can. ”

Additional Resources

Jennifer F. Cross, M.D., is an attending pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine. An expert in the diagnosis and management of children with developmental disabilities, Dr. Cross is board-certified in developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

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