It’s 8 a.m. as the two of us sign on to Zoom to discuss this article. Various Disney musicals blare in the backgrounds of both sides of our conversation as we sip our coffees and struggle to remember life before the coronavirus. Just weeks ago, the sight of our toddlers entranced by screens first thing in the morning would have caused panic. Now? It’s a typical Tuesday. In fact, screens are on as we write this article. How else could we do it?
As coronavirus lockdowns spread across the country, many parents are turning to television, tablets and video games more than they typically would. In fact, TV, streaming platforms and app downloads have all seen notable increases in their use since the pandemic started. Although part of this time in front of screens is related to remote teaching in virtual classrooms, children’s television viewing has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Channels such as The Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, Boomerang and Nickelodeon have reported viewing increases by as much as nearly 60% in a single week.
As parents and scientists who study and treat disease in kids (one of us is an epidemiologist and the other a pediatrician), we understand how jarring it is to see our children suddenly glued to “Frozen 2” at 8 a.m. And after years of following guidelines to limit their media exposure, it’s hard not to wonder whether all of this screen time is OK. Will going from strictly limiting our kids’ media exposure to a cartoon free-for-all harm them? Isn’t screen time still bad?
Not necessarily, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and expert on children and media at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. She said parents need to stop thinking about screen time in a negative way. “Even the phrase ‘screen time’ itself is problematic,” she said, meaning some people think all screens are bad. “It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced.”
Certainly, existing screen time recommendations (no screen time for children under 18 months and less than one hour of daily high-quality programming for 2- to 5-year-olds) don’t really account for the reality of how we use media. Sure, our children use screens to watch cartoons, but they also now need them to connect with teachers, classmates and grandparents.
Focusing on time can cause of lot of us to feel guilty when a FaceTime chat with grandma pushes our kid’s screen use beyond what’s recommended. Not to mention a pandemic that has us juggling work and the demands of children who need near-constant attention.
On March 17, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement in response to the coronavirus that reflected a different approach to screen time. The statement acknowledged that “kids’ screen media use will likely increase” during the pandemic, but did not offer specific time limits. Instead, the statement stressed that screen time limits “are still important” and urged parents to “preserve offline experiences.”
This approach to time limits was deliberate. “We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard,” sadi Radesky, who helped craft the statement. “There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don’t be on it all day.”
It’s understandable that parents might want some concrete guidance on how to ensure that their child’s screen exposure is healthy and balanced. But instead of focusing on how much time your child spends in front of a screen, Radesky suggested, it might be better to approach their media use in terms of who they are, what they’re watching and how you’re interacting with them. This is what Radesky and others called the “Three C’s” framework: Child, content and context.
“You know your child better than anyone else and are therefore the best person to decide what and how much media use is the right amount,” she said. So, for example, if your child is anxious, avoid the news or a scary video. If your child likes music, find programming that incorporates singing, like a musical with a soundtrack.
In terms of content, quality matters more than the quantity of time or size of screen being used. This holds true for children of all ages. For younger kids, try to prioritize content developed by reputable sources, such as PBS Kids. Organizations such as Common Sense Media offer age-based recommendations for movies, television, books, apps and games and can be good starting places to look for ideas or to learn more about the media your kids are already using. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Cincinnati Zoo also offer live cameras that entertain as well as educate, and are good distractions for toddlers.
Live cameras also mimic real life at a realistic pace, which has been shown to lessen overstimulation — when developing, brains get over-excited by a barrage of sensory experience. For instance, some researchers believe that fast-paced, stimulating shows, such as “PJ Masks,” may be more likely to trigger attentional problems in children over the long term than slower paced media that’s more relatable and less distracting, such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Older kids may turn to video games, which many experts say are not associated with violent behavior. Regardless, be sure that teens playing video games such as Fortnite or Overwatch are also maintaining social relationships during a time when face-to-face interactions are limited.
Finally, context — how we interact with our children around the media — matters too. Radesky encourages parents to engage with their kids during their screen time. Taking an interest in what your kids are doing will help build their sense of self esteem. Clearly, this won’t be possible if you’re hoping the TV will distract your toddler away from your Zoom conference. In these moments, kids can also connect in real time with friends or family member using apps such as Caribu, which allows your child to read a book or color with someone remotely.
When you can, help connect your child’s media use with real-world experiences by asking her questions about what she is learning or watching. For example, Radesky suggests watching a cooking video and then translating that into an actual cooking activity as a family.
To avoid battles, we recommend establishing and communicating boundaries before your children start using devices, and sticking to those limits as much as possible. Children, especially younger ones, often crave structure, especially during unpredictable times. It’s still good, for instance, for everyone to eliminate screen use for at least an hour or two before bedtime to avoid impacting sleep cycles. If possible, spend some time outside. Research suggests that being outdoors can relieve stress, promote cardiovascular health and protect children from digital eyestrain.
Finally, remember that it can be helpful for parents to model the behavior they are asking of their kids. There are many reasons you will also be enticed by your smartphone as you, too, are craving social interactions and instant updates on the news. Consider taking a break from your own screens as a good example.
This pandemic could extend for a long time, so as you create new routines, focus on habits that are sustainable and practical. Above all else, don’t feel guilty about turning to screens more than you used to. Although the internet is saturated with non-screen-related advice for helping parents entertain children who are stuck indoors, color-coded schedules and toys can only go so far. And, frankly, they don’t help when parents have their own remote work responsibilities.
Limiting screens right now will be especially challenging if you’re a single parent or if you don’t have a flexible working situation or paid family or sick leave. Most working families don’t have these luxuries and, even for parents who do, screen-free days will be rare these days.
That’s OK. “What children really need right now for optimal mental health are their parents,” Radesky said. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed and scattered, find time for activities that help you calm down, think more clearly and be more emotionally aware and curious about what your kids need. Those are the qualities that are going to help our kids adapt better to this situation.”