If you feel your kids’ screen time has increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. The advocacy group Parents Together reports a 500 percent increase in kids’ screen time usage during the pandemic, with 85 percent of parents concerned about their kids’ time spent in front of screens. With many kids learning online, and many parents working from home succumbing to kids’ requests for more screen time to get their own work done, parent guilt on the matter is also on the rise.
We asked pediatrician Dr. Natalia Tutak with SSM Health St. Anthony to weigh in on realistic strategies to manage kids’ screen time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 2 hours or less of screen time for kids, but we know that during the pandemic kids’ screen time has soared. Is there a more realistic, individualized way to gauge how much screen time is appropriate for a child?
Especially right now, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. The key is tailoring screen time usage to your family’s needs and values. One great tool families can use is creating an individualized Family Media Use Plan through the American Academy of Pediatrics at HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan. This tool allows families to think about how they want to use media and create goals and rules in line with their personal values. The plan includes a media time calculator you can set for each child by age. Then, you can calculate time away from media for sleep and recommended daily exercise, and you can add/subtract time for school, meals, family time, etc. to get a more realistic approach to how much screen time your child is getting.
When it comes to screen time limits, does quality or quantity matter most? How should content and context factor in?
Right now it is best to focus on quality screen time. It will be difficult to limit quantity especially since that is how most of school work is now being done. In general, quality screen time is that which is educational and/or viewed alongside a parent or caregiver. Podcasts and audiobooks can also be great ways to engage kids in educational screen time.
Tracking daily screen time for kids can be a chore and often ends up in a fight! What are some realistic strategies for parents to communicate and get kids on board with whatever screen time limitations they set?
If your child is older, work through the Family Media Use Plan with them. This way they can feel like they were a part of the decision-making process. Parents should also model the expected behaviors for them. For example, if you set meal times as media-free zones, it should apply to all family members.
With many kids learning virtually, how can parents strike a balance between screen time for schoolwork, for fun and off-screen time?
Stick to a schedule. Set a time to wake up, get ready for the day and do school work. Keep the TV off during virtual learning, take mini breaks from the computer and have a set lunch break. After school work is done you can have time set aside for “fun” screen time for the child. For off-screen time, it helps to keep screens out of bedrooms and set limits of no screen time during meals and bedtime.
Is digital eye strain a concern for kids learning virtually, and if so, how can parents help mitigate it?
Digital eye strain is most certainly a concern, especially with the increase in screen time. Parents can help their children by reminding them to take breaks. The child should look away from the screen about every 20 minutes, focus on an object at least 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. Kids should also get up and walk away from the screen for 10 minutes each hour.
What apps, programs or rules do you recommend to help parents keep kids safe on their devices?
Screen time shouldn’t always be alone time. One way to keep kids safe is to co-watch programs with them or play games they enjoy with them. There are also many apps like Bark and Qustodio that can help parents monitor usage. Refer to organizations such as Common Sense Media, which reviews age-appropriate apps, games and programs.
How can screen time impact kids’ mental health, and what might be some behaviors or indicators that could mean they need a screen break?
High users of screen time can be more likely to display poor emotion regulation, decreased self-control and inability to finish tasks. If you notice poor sleep or the child withdrawing from family and friends, it should spark an open conversation about what is going on and a reevaluation of your plan.
How can families create opportunities for screen breaks and healthy habits for screen usage?
One great opportunity for a screen break for everyone in the family is during dinner. Focus on the meal and spending time together as a family (unplugged). In general, ensure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, reading, downtime or family activities.
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Dr. Natalia Tutak is a pediatrician with SSM Health St. Anthony who cares for children and adolescents across a variety of non-emergency primary care needs, including well-child checks with immunizations, sports physicals, treatment of acute symptoms, ongoing treatment of chronic concerns and more. She earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and her medical degree from the University of Oklahoma before going on to pursue her residency at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Dr. Tutak is a member of the American Medical Association, American Women’s Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and Oklahoma State Medical Association. Dr. Tutak can be reached at 405-713-2696 or ssmhealth.com/NataliaTutakMD.