Prior to the global pandemic, research indicated that 83% of parents were concerned about the amount of screen time their kids were getting. For many families, screen time has necessarily increased, with much schooling moving online as well as the limitations around physical contact and activities.
In fact, COVID-19 safety measures created such a shift in how parents and caregivers had to think about children and screen time that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidance on screen use. The organization acknowledged screen usage has likely increased for children, but that there are ways to ensure good balance is achieved with other activities and pastimes.1
Differentiating Types of Screen Time
Not all screen time is the same. Watching cartoons or movies is very different input to playing an educational game, creating art or learning. It can be very helpful to distinguish types of screen time and assign a ‘time budget’ for each type. For example:
Productive: This includes schooling or learning activities, attending online classes, doing homework, practicing new skills, etc
Social: This includes chatting to friends or family, online gatherings or parties.
Entertainment: This includes all the other ‘fun’ stuff – movies, social media, games, etc.
Determine what ‘time budget’ for each you feel is appropriate for your kids, based on their ages and needs, and knowing that there might be some negotiation involved!
The Importance of Routine
“It’s more important than ever for us to put structures and schedules into our days and to those of our children to ensure a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Paul Weigle. Without these structures, games, social media and auto-pilot engagement with devices creeps in and takes over.
And, of course, kids also learn from what parents do, not what they say. So, it’s vital for you as a parent to also monitor and adjust your own screen time and device usage so that you can model appropriate and healthy habits for your kids.
The key is to monitor and moderate. The AAP’s has updated their guidelines on how to help children achieve a healthy balance of screen usage. Here are their suggestions:
Schedule your day.Create a daily plan for online work with breaks to relax and connect with each other to maintain structure.
Communicate with the experts you know.Ask teachers to recommend age-appropriate online and offline educational activities for children.
Make positive use of social media.Use video chats or social media to avoid isolation, stay connected and check with neighbours, friends and loved ones to see if they are OK.
Be selective about content.Use trusted sources for positive, informational and useful content.
Use media together.Watch a movie together and discuss the story with children. Monitor what older children are viewing and what they are learning.
Exercise is Key
Exercise is a key method to improve health and all levels of well-being. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “a short break from sitting, by doing 3-5 minutes of physical movement, such as walking or stretching, will help ease muscle strain, relieve mental tension and improve blood circulation and muscle activity”. However, for those aged 5 to 17, they should spend at least 60 minutes a day doing moderate to vigorous physical activity.2
A great way to incorporate more physical activity into your child’s routine, is to gamify it! Set up a system whereby they can earn screen time ‘tokens’ by exercising. Research suggests that goal setting is a key strategy and that parents can use several tactics to do this. Here is one approach:
First, create a diagram or chart on a bedroom wall to help track your kid’s screen time. This helps them to visualise the amount of time they are spending in front of screens and to manage and set goals for their screen use.
Second, use positive cues, such as a points or tokens system, to encourage more exercise rather than penalising children for using screens too much.
Third, be a good role model to encourage your children to reduce their own sedentary behaviour. You can change your home environment to encourage a more active lifestyle by devoting space to a home gym or workout area, for example, and limiting screens to dedicated areas.3