Screen Time During Social Distancing: Relax, It Won’t Ruin Your Kids

It’s the last thing that beleaguered parents need right now — yet another source of worry. And if we’re counting on expert advice to guide us through the coronavirus pandemic, know that we can at least breathe easy when it comes to screen time.

UNICEF recently shared some of its previously published research on children and screen time. One of these studies was an evidence-focused literature review of research conducted between 2005 and 2017, and the study’s conclusion was that not using technology at all, or using it excessively, could both have a negative impact on children’s mental well-being. 

However, the study found that the moderate use of technology could actually have a small positive effect on children. 

What qualifies as “moderate” use? According to a research example cited in the paper:

… watching TV and movies or using computers had a small negative impact when use exceeded four hours per day, in contrast to smart phones which had a small negative impact when use exceeded two hours per day. Prior to reaching these cut-off points, each activity showed a positive impact on mental well-being.

For now, UNICEF’s stand on screen time is that other factors, such as parental support, family relationships, or adverse childhood experiences have more influence over children’s well-being than screen time. With regards to the actual amount of time spent online, their advice is to pay attention to what children are doing online, as well as the content that they’re encountering, as opposed to fixating on a number.

What parents need to accept is that the internet is currently the “world’s best tool for distanced socialising.” We may fret about our children’s attention spans, eyesight, lack of physical activity, and more as they take to their screens for home-based learning and entertainment. But given that we’re required to stay in as much as possible to be socially responsible, this is the time to reframe the way we view the digital world, and try to make the best of it.

Need help to navigate screen time during social distancing? Here’s what the experts have to say:

Don’t toss out the rulebook. “Limits are still important,” says Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician, and a mother herself. “The same guidance applies about technology use not displacing sleep, physical activity, reading, reflective downtime, or family connection. Challenge your children to practice ‘tech self-control’ and turn off tech themselves.” Follow her Twitter updates for more screen time tips and family-friendly resources.

Let teachers know what’s working (and what’s not) for home-based learning. Irene Tham, tech editor for the Straits Times and mother, has written about some limitations of the Student Learning Space system that Singapore students are required to use. There’s not much that teachers can do about this, but you should let them know if they’re setting too much daily work, if instructions are unclear, if work cannot be completed or submitted on your child’s device, or if processes could be better streamlined — because these inefficiencies will result in needless time spent staring at a screen. 

But do be considerate: as teachers are also likely to be inundated by messages, check in with your class WhatsApp groups, and if possible, consolidate feedback from parents into a single message or email. Also, don’t forget to give praise for a well-designed lesson; all teachers could use a morale boost at this time.

Judge the content that your kids are consuming: use a “4 Cs” approach to steer them towards better material. “In the best instances, media can be a tool to prompt rich conversations and to extend the learning beyond the screen, guided by a caring and intentional adult,” says Michael Levine, co-author of Tap, Click, Read, a book about promoting literacy in the digital age. He recommends a 4 Cs framework for assessing online content on behalf of your kids:

  • Context: How are children consuming this content? Are they bonding with family members at the same time, or zoning out alone in front of the screen?
  • Content: Who created this content? Is it educational or credible? If it’s meant for leisure viewing, is it still meaningful in some way?
  • Child: Are your children viewing content that is relevant to their lives? Does the content help to foster their interests and passions?
  • Cultural: Is cultural diversity depicted in the content? 

Try mentoring instead of monitoring. Here’s the difference: monitoring is attempting to impose hard limits on screen time, while mentoring is about understanding the media that your children are using. Experts agree that parents should remain firm about banning devices during mealtimes and at bedtime, but everything else can be discussed. Devorah Heitner, author of the book Screenwise, says that media mentoring is about getting to know your kids through the technology that they use: “It’s understanding that … what your kids are doing is part of their identity, whether it’s through the kinds of people they follow on Tumblr or the kinds of things they share.” 

Heitner also recommends getting children to monitor their own moods after using their devices — such as by referring to a mood chart. In this way, your child might be able to see that an hour spent online playing games makes him or her feel good, but two hours? Maybe not so much.

Teach kids to do good with technology. Beyond virtual tutoring sessions and video calls with loved ones, there are many more ways to connect with the community during a global crisis. 

“Kids and teens get so many positive emotions when they feel that they matter and that they are making a difference in someone’s life or a situation,” says Stanford-trained physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, who has made a documentary (Screenagers) on the challenges of parenting in a digital world. “Being able to take action to support and help others fosters resilience.” 

Some of her suggestions include encouraging children, especially teens, to reach out to peers who may be struggling during this time, use technology to create something uplifting, and search for ways to help others online, either by making a donation or volunteering for a cause. For those in Singapore, AidHub is a good place to start.