By Guest Blogger Christine Murray*
During pre-COVID times, screen time was scarce in my family. We watched TV a couple times a week for a family movie night or for time to relax on a rare night when we didn’t have an extracurricular activity or other outing scheduled. Even my boys (who are 10 and 13) only played video games on rare occasions, and we had very little conflict about access to their devices and screens.
Fast forward to our COVID quarantine, and it’s like we started living in an alternate universe when it came to screen time! Back in March, when the pandemic first kept up cooped up at home, we basically threw almost all screen time limits out the window, at least once the kids had their schoolwork done. I took some comfort in knowing that even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had offered new guidance acknowledging the need for many families to relax screen time limits as a way to cope with the new demands and stressors that children and their parents were facing.
And now, as the new school year is back in session with fully remote learning for most children in the Triad, screen time issues take on new meaning since kids are on some form of technology for much of their days to learn. Between online learning and extra technology use for fun, it can seem like kids of all ages are constantly glued to one device or another.
Parents: It’s totally understandable if you’re facing stress about how to navigate your children’s use of technology right now. Because every family’s situation is different, keep in mind that every family has to figure out what works best for them. Below are tips for thinking through how to navigate screen time decisions in your family right now:
1. Remember that we’re still in the middle of very unusual (and extremely challenging) times, and we have to make different decisions than those we may have made during “normal” times. Don’t judge your decisions today by the same guidelines you were using pre-COVID. Most of us have heard a lot from pediatricians, teachers, and other experts about the importance of limiting screen time, such as the AAP’s usual guidelines that many pediatricians share at checkups. However, life today is different for most of us, which means normal guidelines may not apply. Consider these typical guidelines as a starting point, but give yourself permission to adapt them to your family’s unique circumstances.
2. Keep some limits in place. Don’t give up your parental authority around technology and screen time completely! Take time to reflect on what is really important to you, and consider setting some minimum expectations to communicate with your child. For example, you may still want your child to take time outdoors or for exercise or play each day even if they’re using technology more while indoors. Or, you may want to limit the types of video games, TV shows, or online content your child is accessing. As a parent, put systems in place to help reinforce these boundaries, such as by using parental controls and setting passwords on devices to limit your child’s access to the content you don’t want them to see.
3. Consider the age and stage of your child. Within the AAP’s typical guidelines, the younger the child, the less screen time they should have. However, even many preschool programs today are using virtual learning, so even very young children may have a lot more screen time today than normal. And, parents who are trying to work from home while also parenting young children at home may need to use technology to keep their children occupied so they can get work done. Especially with younger children, try to use screen time strategically throughout your days and build in screen-free breaks as much as possible. For example, if you need some screen time to distract your child while you work, try to balance that by keeping the TV off at other times of day. Younger children may need more oversight by their parents to stick with schedules, but older children can be given more freedom to monitor their own routines once they’ve shown more responsibility.
4. Remember: All technologies are not created equal. Notice whether and how different forms of technology impact your child. You may find that some forms of technology seem more damaging than others, and if that’s the case, those devices may require more firm limits. In our family, the Xbox quickly became a major source of problems, fights, and conflict during quarantine. We experimented with different types of limit-setting, but eventually it became clear that the only way to resolve the challenges would be to completely remove the device from our home (for now, at least). Removing it wasn’t a popular decision, but once it was gone, the stress and conflict levels went way down, and the peace was well worth it. Most kids today use many different types of technology and devices, and parents can consider the different effects that each type has on their children and set limits accordingly—while also possibly maintaining more freedom with some types compared to others.
5. Consider your and your child’s mental health while making decisions about screen time. We are living in difficult times, and technology can be used as a tool that either can help or hurt our and our children’s mental health. Try to maximize using technology in ways that foster positive mental health in your family—such as by giving you time to rest while your children watch a movie or by using technology to stay connected with friends and family who you can’t see in person. At the same time, try to limit mental health risks that may arise related to technology use, such as addictive patterns and cyberbullying. If you are concerned that your own or your child’s technology use may be contributing to negative mental health, consider reaching out to a professional counselor or therapist for support.
6. Give yourself permission to be flexible. Kids of all ages (and parents) need some semblance of routine and predictability in their lives. Therefore, it’s helpful to have relatively consistent rules or guidelines about technology in place. That said, the reality of life today is that we are living with a lot of uncertainty and frequent changes in all areas of our lives. Explain to your children that some days might be different than others, and you can explain some of the factors that may impact how technology guidelines will change (e.g., the weather and your ability to get outside, how much school work there is, and other activities you have planned). Life is ever-changing now, so give yourself grace and flexibility to change and adjust to new circumstances as they arise.
Whether you’ve got very young kids or are the parent of teenagers, embrace this unique season of life as an opportunity to have conversations with your children about healthy versus unhealthy uses of technology. As much as technology can create headaches and conflict in families, the reality is that technology is a big part of our lives today—and that will continue to be true long after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. By teaching your children to use technology wisely—even during extremely difficult times—you can help them build important life skills that will help them throughout their lives.
* Christine Murray is the Director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships and the Healthy Relationships Initiative. The HRI team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form here.
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