Karla Petersen had a gut-level feeling that staring at screens all day was harming her kids.

The single mom had to help seven kids manage up to 32 separate daily log-ons to schooling platforms. Space in their Northgate home was limited. The district-provided Wi-Fi hotspot booted them offline and out of class up to six times an hour. And remote learning was stoking anxiety in the kids, who were already coping with trauma.

So Petersen redesigned school. She let her live-in kids, who range in age from 6 to 17, log in at their own discretion and supplemented with her own loose curriculum of on-the-fly adventures: scavenger hunts in the park (physical education), gardening (biology), and, most recently, a unit on caring for animals, courtesy of two local guinea pigs who needed a new home.

As Washington families continue to adapt to the mess of a pandemic, they’re struggling to balance their children’s relationships with screens now that school is mostly online. But six research and policy experts interviewed agreed that screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad for children’s development. Like Petersen found, what’s more important is making up for the things that kids miss during all that time playing on apps or watching movies. And the quality of the digital tools they’re interacting with matters, too.

While official guidelines on screen time still exist, pediatricians say they’re backing away from presenting them as hard and fast rules. As Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Michigan Medicine, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, put it: “This is not as straightforward as lowering your cholesterol.”

In the Puget Sound region, some districts, like Renton and Federal Way, are trying to help by designing lessons that involve some off-screen time, too.

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The research on screen time

Experts say early research on screen time missed the mark, decrying technology while ignoring kids’ circumstances. Before COVID-19, reliance on screens may have said more about disadvantage than it did about parenting, said Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor at Boston College who studies the way children learn language: In a household with two working parents and few resources, it’s a sure bet that kids will be spending a lot of time with Sesame Street or TikTok.

Overall, we don’t know exactly how screen time affects the brain. “We heard lots of people giving advice about child-rearing during the pandemic,” Hartshorne said. “It was largely based on guesses … because we haven’t been through something like this before.” 

That guesswork showed up in his research. After COVID-19 broke out, Hartshorne and his colleagues who work on the KidTalk child language acquisition study found that across streaming platforms, people began watching significantly more content designed for children. Their paper, which hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, did not attribute the shift to changing attitudes about screen time. Instead, they said, it’s possible that parents turned to technology to entertain their kids as access to child care dwindled.

Rather than minimizing screen time, researchers and educators say, caretakers should focus on the quality of programming while also trying to make up for the positive things kids miss during all that time in Zoom school, watching TV or playing on apps. Children need in-person interaction, time outdoors and tactile activities to thrive — which is exactly what Karla Petersen did. 

“Technology is one way kids can learn,” she said. “It doesn’t use the full scope of brain potential.” 

Petersen’s kids were spending hours at their computers a day, and she knew she had to find something else. 

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After one particularly tough day, she sent their four schools and Seattle Public Schools administrators a letter saying she would no longer follow the official schedule.

“I will resign, as of Monday, September 28, 2020, from any kind of teaching role within (the) SPS system and will begin activities to regain our family equilibrium and emotional health,” she wrote. “I gave this process a fair attempt … but I cannot continue to watch my children’s mental and emotional health deteriorate.”

So far, teachers have mostly tried to help; she hasn’t received any official response from the district. While she supplements instruction, she does try to limit tech usage to two hours at a time.

“I gave this process a fair attempt … but I cannot continue to watch my children’s mental and emotional health deteriorate.”
— Karla Petersen

Before the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics offered these guidelines: no screen time, other than video chatting, for babies under 18 months; little to none for toddlers; up to 1 hour daily for preschoolers; up to one-and-a-half hours a day for elementary school students; and up to two hours for those in middle school. 

Now, AAP says limits still matter, but that parents should “preserve offline experiences, which help families connect emotionally.” 

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That pandemic-era statement from AAP wasn’t meant to be a doubling down of screen time limits, said Radesky, who helped craft the message as a member of the Academy’s executive committee of the council on communications and media. The message, she said, is “really about working on all the stuff between the screens,” such as sleep schedules and holding difficult conversations without the interruption of scrolling through social media.

Local researchers, too, are presenting screen time as a more nuanced issue. “As much as I know parents are very eager to hear time guidelines, the research community is really starting to understand more and more that it’s about the quality of the experience and not necessarily the time,” said Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of outreach and education at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “We’re starting to get away from the concept of screen time.”

Quality experiences, she said, allow for meaningful interaction, such as creating digital art, or other media that let children lead.

There are specific considerations for younger kids. Much of the learning tech districts wasn’t designed to facilitate children’s learning, said Radesky.

“Zoom, which is great for business meetings, … is not designed for teaching young kids,” she said. An ideal platform for young learners, she said, would include a white board with no emoji, chats or other distractions.

Supplementing online learning 

On a recent sunny Tuesday, Petersen’s kids buzzed around her house. Several huddled around the dining room table, learning from devices, with poster board barriers separating them like cubicle walls. From outside, kids could be heard laughing, screaming, counting. One by one, they stepped outside, marking the end of their online school day.

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Today’s outdoor lesson: de-potting the water lilies they had planted in four bins early in the pandemic. 

Karla held up two lily pads, their slimy roots between her fingers. “What do you see?” she asked, her children huddled around her, 6-year-old Becca Booth gleeful that she found a worm. “Want to get the rhizomes and the roots?” Karla asked.

Karla lives with her seven children, three of whom she adopted and four of whom are in her care through various programs.

“What are rhizomes?” one sibling asked. Karla explained how water lilies can take over ponds because their rhizomes, or underwater stems, grow so quickly. Most kids listened; some peeled off, while others began smoothing a bed of mulch.

“I’m kind of sick of screens.”
— Tavo Petersen-Zambrano, 14

Bringing kids outside gives them the opportunity to move and exercise their eyes in different ways, Radesky said. Spending time in nature is good for vision, she said, because it provides your eyes’ lenses the opportunity to switch focus frequently.

That said, researchers have noted “Zoom fatigue,” a phenomenon that can affect people of all ages, including Nathalia Petersen-Zambrano. Those early days with hours of online learning made the 17-year-old Nova High School student feel like a drone. At night, she said, it worsened her anxiety, making it harder to sleep.

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Her 14-year-old brother, Tavo Petersen-Zambrano, found all the logging in and out stressful. He said, “I’m kind of sick of screens.”

How schools are trying to help

As local school district leaders realized they would likely spend at least part of the fall online, many took concerns about screen time into account when designing remote instruction plans. 

In the Lake Washington School District, administrators bought print materials in math and reading for elementary school students. 

In Renton, Chief Technology Officer Ellen Dorr said, educators tried to replicate the casual interactions that happen naturally in a classroom setting. Every online class, she said, starts with a check-in, where the teacher asks students how they’re doing before launching into the day’s lesson.

Federal Way Public Schools sprinkles in a full day of asynchronous learning each week, said spokesperson Kassie Swenson — which involves a mix of assignments related to their live instruction. There’s also some independent time every day. Educators build off-screen lessons into their online curricula. 

Tools for parents

The 3 C’s of navigating screen time

To help parents struggling with decisions over screen time, Lisa Guernsey, director of the teaching, learning and tech program at New America and author of the books “Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child” and “Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens,” developed a framework she calls the “three C’s.”

Instead of hard and fast rules, she says, parents should begin asking themselves questions around these topics:

Content: What are kids seeing on a screen? Is it stimulating to them? Is it violent, or designed to help with language?

Context: Is there something that’s connected to learning they’re already doing? Do they have someone playing with them like a sibling or parent?

-Your Child: Every child has individual needs. A developmental delay or autism, for example, will change a child’s relationship with technology. Pay attention to which types of media upset your child.

You can read tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics on managing tech amid COVID-19 here.

Not everyone is thrilled. Leah Avila, a Federal Way mother, is worried her 10-year-old son often finishes his independent work hours before the school day would ordinarily end. She doesn’t mind that he plays Xbox games to fill the time, she said, but she does feel “guilt shamed because that’s what society tells us about technology.”

Don’t worry about that, researchers say, especially during these extraordinary times. “Parents need to shower and prepare dinner,” Lytle said. “If it means you could be a better parent because you showered and your kids watched 20 minutes of age-appropriate television, that’s totally fine.”