- COVID-19 has seen an increase in children’s screen time, with many now clocking six hours per day according to one study — up 500% since before the pandemic.
- Business Insider spoke to parents and experts about how to best manage kids’ screen time
- Their advice varied from establishing offline routines to focusing more on what children are doing online rather than how much time they’re spending on devices.
- The most important thing is to make time to do family activities together away from technology.
- Sign up for our new parenting newsletter Insider Parenting here.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools and businesses to close in March, Jessica Nelson was tasked with taking care of three children on her own.
Like most people, Nelson had to balance other daily responsibilities with occupying her children's time. But her situation was particularly stressful. Just one week after her father suddenly passed away, her husband was diagnosed with COVID-19, requiring him to quarantine in their bedroom.
"We had very little outside help, and it was a lot of stress that fell on my shoulders," she said.
Nelson, based in Buffalo, New York, leaned heavily on tech in those early days, she said. Two of her children, the 8- and 9-year-olds, were remote schooling while she cared for her 4-year-old and sick husband. That meant her children were spending several hours per day in front of screens, for education or entertainment.
Recently, she's been able to set more boundaries around their screen time by getting them more involved in helping around the house.
"The first few months, they were probably spending six or seven hours per day watching television or playing with iPads, not including virtual learning," she said. "Now, they're back down to around two or three hours each day."
She isn't alone; taking our lives online has been an unavoidable byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. One study by the advocacy group ParentsTogether found that 48% of respondents' kids spent more than six hours per day online since the beginning of lockdown — an increase of nearly 500% since before the coronavirus began.
Business Insider spoke with several parents and experts to gain a better understanding of the most effective ways to manage tech usage at a time when our days are still largely spent at home.
Establish routines as a family to separate online and offline time
Tech entrepreneur Tatiana Belim has always run her business from her home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. But when her teenage children began homeschooling in March, she had to be more intentional about how to structure her family time.
She found that trying to align the family schedules around screen time was a good way to make sure everyone made the most of their time.
"While the children are doing education online, parents can focus on work," she said. "This block of screen time together allows us to get our work done, so that we can then spend time doing something that's not related to electronic devices and being fully present for the children."
Belim believes that "nature abhors a vacuum," so kids (and adults) will naturally fill empty time by looking at a smartphone or iPad. To counter this instinct, she sets aside time to participate in educational activities with her children, such as watching documentaries as a family.
"My advice to others is to commit to alternative activities and book them into the calendar — but you have to be honest with yourself," she said. "Will you actually be able to make the time for these activities? The last thing you want is to feel guilty if you don't follow through."
Oklahoma City-based Beau Coffron, a parenting blogger who writes under the name the Lunchbox Dad, said he and his wife often use screen time as a reward at the end of the day when his kids — ages 13, 10, and 6 — complete all of their school work and chores. He also designates certain days of the week for family activities that don't involve technology.
"We also implemented screen-free days one to two days per week, where we would do fun crafts like painting canvases, baking banana bread, or a family movie night together," he said.
Experts recommend these types of structural changes, too. Dr. Tobias Dienlin, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of media psychology at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, encouraged establishing a routine away from your devices.
"It's important to remember that offline activities offer benefits that online media doesn't," he said. "I recommend scheduling family activities to get everyone together, such as going out for a walk, calling grandma each Sunday, a board games night, and a cooking night each week."
With families stuck at home and parents juggling work with childcare, parents are finding creative ways to do that. Chelsie Prince and her husband found a simple yet effective way to keep their 2-year-old twin boys occupied without relying on screens.
"I've had to get really creative," Prince, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, California, said."We use large Amazon boxes as their 'coloring station,' which has been a big hit. They sit inside the box in my office and color 'big pictures' for me."
Break the 'golden rule of screen time'
The key to effectively managing screen time may be changing the way parents think about screen time to begin with.
Simply limiting time spent on electronic devices isn't practical since we're relying on tech for everything from remote learning to work and socializing.
"My number one tip for screen time is to break the golden rule of screen time," said Alana Pace, a trained psychologist and stay-at-home mom of three kids based in Vancouver, British Columbia, who blogs at Parenting from the Heart. "Right now, rationing screen time to an exact number of minutes spent isn't realistic."
Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist and researcher at the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University, believes strict rules may not be the most efficient approach.
"The more parents try, the more resistance they will meet," she said. "The best way to teach kids to manage their own screen time is to involve them in discussions and decisions about healthy usage of technology."
Instead of focusing on how much digital technology children are consuming, parents should place more emphasis on what they're doing with their time online, according to Professor Candice L. Odgers of Duke University, who researches the intersection of child development and technology
"Counting hours does not distinguish between very different types of online experiences," Odgers said. "This change is especially important now as time online needs to be tailored to meet basic and critical educational and social needs of adolescents."
Taking the time to get firsthand experience using the apps and games your children enjoy can also be helpful.
Not only does it help the parent ensure that the content they're consuming is appropriate and safe, but it also gives them something else to share in common with their child.
"I do not enjoy 'Fortnite' — although the dances are growing on me — but I play it with my son to make sure that it is safe and to see why he is so drawn to it," Odgers said. "Kids often love to share what they have learned, so there are chances to collaborate and for them to teach."
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