When Limiting Your Child’s Screen Time During COVID-19, It’s All About Context, Content, and Connections

photo of child sitting by the table while looking at the imac

Setting and enforcing boundaries and rules around the use of media and screens was already difficult before remote learning and social distancing required so much of our children’s lives to involve the use of a screen. 

How do we enforce rules like, “no screens before homework,” when homework requires a screen? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests time restrictions on digital media are necessary, recommending no screentime for children younger than 18 months and no more than 1 hour per day for children 2 to 5. Now that school, playdates, and family get-togethers are all done over screens, you may find yourself wondering:

“What even counts as screen time anymore?” 

“Should we all just agree to put screen time rules on hold during this pandemic?”

“What are the consequences of that?”

“Aren’t screens still bad?” 

When it comes to screen time, there seem to be more questions than answers. The truth is, what’s right for some families won’t be right for others. Navigating screen time rules during coronavirus will depend on individual family circumstances, resources, and values. The answer is: there is no answer. But we can look to research and the advice of experts to help make an informed decision when deciding what’s right for our families. 

There is research to suggest that increased screen time is associated with a variety of physical and mental health risks for children and adolescents, including obesity, unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms, poor emotional regulation, less creativity, and more difficulty making friends. While most studies are correlational and not causational, some longitudinal studies suggest a causal link between increases in recreational screen time and lower psychological well-being. 

Cue the mom guilt, right? Many experts are quick to say, “not so fast” and urge parents and policymakers not to discount the benefits technology and media can offer and look more closely at what factors actually turn risk into harm. 

Some researchers argue that the focus on time is misleading and outdated and that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters when it comes to screens. The London School of Economics Media Policy Project suggests that instead of policing how much time your children spend in front of a screen, you can instead examine the 3 Cs – Context (where, when and how screens are used), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded). 

Instead of asking if your children are spending too much time on screens, it might be more meaningful to ask if your child’s needs are being met and if screens are interfering. These researchers suggest asking the following questions when considering your child’s screen use: 

“Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?”

“Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?”

“Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?”

“Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?”

“Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media?”

What to Consider When Thinking About Context

Screen use boundaries will look different from family to family, but creating a schedule and setting limits can help ensure you’re being mindful about screen use and making time for uninterrupted family interactions and non-screen activities. It may be helpful to set definitive media-free times and/or definitive media-usage times, such as no screen time during meals and an hour before bed. Using screens while eating or snacking may increase the risk of overeating and research shows that screens before bed can disrupt sleep cycles and make it more difficult for children (and adults) to fall and stay asleep. 

Sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, poor academic performance, and short tempers.  Try to limit screen time 1-2 hours before bed. Keep in mind that you might not always know if your children are on screens when you think they are asleep if they have screens in their bedrooms. 

Remember: following through and modeling media behaviors provides structure, defines expectations, and limits requests and meltdowns.  

While not always possible (especially during the stay-at-home order), watching or playing with your child provides opportunities for deeper understanding and conversation.  Commenting what you see on screen and showing genuine reactions to children’s comments or explanations shows that you are genuinely interested, opens up conversations, and is a tool for bonding. 

This also creates opportunities for teachable moments as you make connections with real-life experiences, practicing critical thinking, and model adaptive behaviors such as self-regulation, and self-calming skills.   

What to Consider When Thinking About Content

Now that we know it might be what rather than how much that’s the more important question, how do we know what to choose? 

Considering individual child factors, like age and interest, can be a good starting point. Especially for younger children, the pace of content seems to matter. Studies suggest that fast-paced and overstimulating media might increase hyperactivity and impulsivity associated with ADHD. Look for programs that mimic real-life pacing (think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). 

It also seems that the timing of gratification seems to matter. Some media, like many video games, provide instant gratification and are therefore high dopamine activities. If you’ve noticed that when you enforce boundaries on screen time your children become irritable or even aggressive, this could be due to a withdrawal from dopamine. Dr. Clifford Sussman suggests alternating between high and low dopamine activities that involve delayed gratification (think media like PowerPoint or screen-free activities like board games).  

High quality, educational programs, like Sesame Street, have been associated with increased academic achievement. But be aware that just because media is classified as educational does not mean that it will actually provide any academic benefit. Read reviews from trusted sources and rely on reputable producers like PBS. Common Sense Media reviews apps, games, shows, software, and devices for children and offers specific recommendations based on age. The Monterey Bay Aquariumruns live footage of their aquariums which may be appropriate for younger children. 

However, when considering media use for infants and toddlers, it’s important for parents to understand that two-way social interactions are necessary to promote learning and language development. So, while it might be okay to have your toddler engaged in watching live animal footage so you can take a conference call, media use is not a replacement for social interaction and free-play. Research suggests that co-viewing is necessary for toddlers to learn through media – with an adult teaching them about the content. 

Many parents also wonder (and feel guilty) about violence and aggression in video games. 

Research on the effects of violence and aggression in media is contradictory and this topic is heatedly debated from the dinner table to the White House. In general, research suggests that playing violent video games does not have a meaningful effect on aggressive behavior in real-life. While some studies show an increase in aggression associated with engagement in violent video games, the effect is usually small

So, this is where your expertise as parents comes in. You know your child best; consider their age and personality factors. If they struggle with aggression and behavior control, you might consider limiting aggressive content. Studies also suggest there are benefits to playing video games, like improvement in visual-spatial abilities and prosocial behavior. 

Video games can also be a powerful learning tool. They can help children build the skills needed to work toward a goal, experience failure, and build resiliency.

What to Consider When Thinking About Connections:

Social distancing has many of us relying on screens to connect with family and friends. FaceTime and Zoom can support social interactions that our children are missing now while school buildings are closed. Video games can also support social interaction and it’s natural for children to seek socialization opportunities that incorporate games. 

What Are the Takeaways?

It is important to be tuned in to what your children are watching, listening to, or playing.  Pay attention to the program to assess if it is developmentally appropriate for your child. Ensure your children are getting enough exercise (outside, if possible) and sleep, are eating a healthy diet, and are engaging socially with friends and family.

Remember that screens shouldn’t be a replacement for activities we know are important to development, like reciprocal social communication and free play, but the research seems to suggest that there’s no need to feel guilty if we are relying a little more on screens to help us get through this pandemic.