For several weeks now, many parents who have been working from home have been challenged by the need to take on the additional daytime responsibility for teaching their children at home. Because much of their children’s education is now coming through digital technology—including instruction, homework, and research—screen time must be managed effectively. This is particularly challenging for children under age eight who aren’t used to screen-based instruction and homework, rather than play based learning.
The questions this home-based schooling raises include: “How much is too much screen time?”, “Can screen time be beneficial in some cases?” and “Is there good advice about how to effectively manage screen time?” Fortunately, there is literature from child psychologists and screen-time researchers about evidence-based recommendations for best-practice screen use for young children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Canadian Paediatric Society, citing 2018 research from the digital and media literacy organization, MediaSmarts, said parents reported 36 per cent of children aged 10-13 at that time spent at least three hours daily using digital devices for non-schoolwork related reasons. Recent American data shows that a majority of kids between the ages of six and twelve are spending at least 50 percent more time in front of screens each day during the first wave COVID-19 outbreak. How might that level of exposure affect kids’ development and mental health? Are there home-based family guidance and time management tips about making that experience more family and child-friendly? Child psychologists suggest the following strategies:
1. Learning at Home
Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities. Learning activities, especially for younger children don’t need to involve pencil and paper. Measuring and reading recipes while cooking and baking, sorting cutlery and laundry, measuring objects like furniture and rooms while making comparisons, and making birthday cards, as well as reading are all worthwhile learning activities. So too are writing and performing plays with stuffed toys, singing, chanting, writing e-mails and telling stories, and researching and performing magic tricks.
2. Working from Home
A parent working from home for an extended period of time with elementary school-age children will likely need to balance their schoolwork and other activities with their work schedule. It may be helpful to set a schedule with your children around expectations for school work versus free time. It will help if your children know when and how they can communicate with you (for example, make up a fun way to communicate, along with reasonable expectations for response time). Other strategies that can enhance your own increased productivity include:
- (a) relaxing limits on screen time during an important meeting,
- (b) having a “boredom box” filled with fun activities and toys that your children can access during your workday, or
- (c) sending your children outside the home or apartment to play (if it is safe to do so).
Allowing children access to online educational tools or setting up supervised video-chatting between them and their friends might help alleviate some of their boredom and leave you with more time for work and yourself.
3. Controlling Screen Time
With schools closed and governments issuing orders for people to stay at home, a lot of kids have no choice but to turn to their screens for school and any kind of socializing. The debate over how much screen time is healthy is nothing new, but our devices have arguably never played as big a role in our lives as they do now when they are stuck at home and need to stay connected because of the global pandemic. Screen time is subjective to an individual family’s and child’s needs, including how they react to screen time. Digital technology encompasses a lot of different platforms and new types of media. What studies exist on the effects of “screen time” primarily deal with television, which is different than a lot of the newer platforms we have where people are interacting in different ways. All of which means that the professionals don’t really know what the impact of digital technology is going to have, because there hasn’t been enough time to complete these long-term studies.
4. Select High Quality, Educational Programming
Screen time can benefit kids over the age of two, when it’s the right type of content. Programming developed with education in mind, such as Sesame Street, can have some small but beneficial effects on children’s language skills. Higher quality programs are more likely to gear their content to the needs of young children by having a coherent story line and by pacing the program to the developmental level of the child. Educational programs often label objects and speak directly to children, which can be helpful for learning new words and sounds. In children under the age of two, research suggests very little learning occurs from screens, even if the content is educational. Thus, limiting screen use in very young children to video-chatting with family and friends or short bouts of screen viewing (10 to 15 minutes) may be the best approach.
5. Watch or Engage in Screens Together
Video chats with loved ones is a healthy way for children to use devices. There is evidence to suggest that when children and caregivers watch screens together, the children are more likely to learn new words. Past research has shown that parents can help their children when using media together by directing their child’s attention to specific content, discussing what is being viewed and reinforcing what they have learned by making it relatable to the child’s day-to-day activities (e.g., “That’s a green car!”).
This means that, when possible, sit down with your child and enjoy media together. Talk about what you are seeing on the screen and get children thinking about what they are watching by asking them to engage through open-ended questions (e.g., “What happened to character X today?”, “Character X is sad, why do you think that is?”), or by describing or labelling what’s on the screen (“Eliza has a backpack on and Spot is purple!”)
6. Use Screens for Human Connection
Pediatric guidelines encourage using video chats with family, friends and loved ones, even for young infants and children. Social connection is important for children and is seen as a healthy way to use devices. During the COVID-19 pandemic, consider reaching out to family members, as well as neighbours, school mates, and retired teachers in your community, and friends to stay socially connected. Ask the individual on the video chat to interact with your child by singing, dancing and/or reading them a story.
You might consider joining the “care mongering” movement and engage your child in social activities that are safe at a distance within your neighbourhood. Examples include making thank you cards for health-care front-line workers, staging balcony concerts, and participating in neighbourhood window scavenger hunts.
7. Balance screen time with other activities
Create a schedule that balances screen time with device-free family time. We know that children often learn when they are engaging in interactions or conversations with their parents, siblings or grandparents. These “serve and return” or back-and-forth exchanges between parents and children are the building blocks of children’s brain development. During COVID-19, try to offset screen-time activities with ample serve-and-return interactions that help build children’s brains and bodies.
While parents may loosen up screen-time limits during COVID-19, we don’t want them to throw out all the rules! That’s because there is evidence, especially in early child development, that too much screen use is associated with poor brain development, as well as delays in children meeting their developmental milestones (like walking, talking, and writing). However, these results are based on children who have patterns of screen use that lasted longer than a few weeks of social distancing.
Perhaps, in conclusion, we should acknowledge and apply three truths. First, we’re in a big unknown outcome experiment. Second, there is no one certain or best answer how to control access in our accelerating digital world. Third, variety is a good thing. As parents, we’re looking for a sense of balance, in terms of communicating, learning, and connecting. Let’s also turn screens off for some time so we and our children can connect together as a family —whether it’s through cooking, playing board games, singing, dancing, going for walks or even having meals together. And most important of all – hugging and kissing!
CTV News – Managing Expectations and Realities of More Screen Time on the Home Front:
Global News – Family Matters: COVID-19 Screen Time
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
UNICEF – Rethinking Screen Time during COVID-19: