How Much Screen Time Is Okay During the Quarantine?
What to do when our routines have evaporated.
By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder of ScreenStrong
As families around the nation hunker down and practice social distancing, now more than ever parents seek an answer to the question of how much screen time is okay.
In our search for the perfect answer, we find op-ed pieces that state:
- “Screen time isn’t as bad as we thought! Let them game!”
- “We are in a pandemic, be gentle with yourself and let the screen rules slide.”
- “Studies now show that screens won’t melt your children’s brain!”
If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
I’ve been researching this topic for ten years. When I read one of those recent pieces, I have questions. Were we wrong this whole time in thinking our kids’ screen overuse could hurt their brains? Are we setting our standards too high for our families? Has screen time become less risky just because we are in a pandemic?
These op-ed pieces are starting to sound oddly familiar. They remind me of conversations I’ve had with my four teenagers:
- “I don’t need a curfew, don’t you trust me?”
- “So-and-so’s mom doesn’t make him clean his own bathroom. She really loves him.”
- “Wearing a helment when you skateboard is dumb.”
- “If you don’t buy me a smartphone I won’t have any friends, I will die, and it will be your fault!”
Like these familiar teen arguments, op-ed writers are using classic adolescent logic, not basic common sense, to make their point. The debate style is so familiar: exaggeration, immaturity, and don’t forget the dash of sarcasm. I can almost hear them whispering between the lines: “Relax and chill out, Mom. Give your kids a break. We are in a pandemic for crying out loud! You deserve a break, too! Video games and TikTok won’t hurt your kids. And, oh by the way, a little porn won’t either.”
As much as these writers are trying to minimize the problem and ease our guilt, the screen battle remains. After all, we don’t see op-ed pieces on the pros and cons of setting limits on reading a book, building a tree fort, or cleaning the garage. I have yet to see a topic on whether or not fishing for three hours will hurt my kids or if doing yard work will hurt my teen’s brain.
Yet, the screen time debate remains.
I don’t need to search opinion pieces to confirm that kids are being hurt by screen overuse. I don’t even need to find the perfect study, even though there are plenty. I am living in a real-life daily study. I already know that just 30 minutes on a video game makes my son a different person and after the same amount of time on social media my daughter is unhappy, stuck in a terrible mood, and sulking in her bedroom. And I don’t need a study to tell me that practicing piano or even pulling weeds in the backyard is better for their development than Fortnite.
It turns out that every parent already knows the answer to the question. We all participate in the great screen experiment every day. When you turn on a screen in a room, suddenly no one is talking, wrestling on the floor, working on the family puzzle, or folding laundry. Take the screen out of the room and all those things will start to happen. After the initial meltdowns, kids get creative because that’s what kids do—they use their amazing imaginations when screen obstacles are removed.
But even more disturbing, this daily experiment also shows us how screen time replaces the healthy activities. Parents know that every minute on a screen is a minute taken from something better—something more developmentally productive and necessary. That is the real reason we feel guilty when we allow too much screen time. What is better for our apprentice adults? Playing Fortnite for three hours or reading a novel? Mindlessly scrolling for two hours on Instagram or riding a bike for exercise? Is creating a new dance on TikTok really better than writing a short story or inventing a new recipe? These answers are easy. What is not easy is saying no to a begging child.
This quarantine is not miraculously making our kids more mature or able to suddenly make good screen choices. It’s also not going to make screens less toxic and addiction proof. Our teens still can’t manage their own screen time. The executive function area of their brain isn’t fully connected yet, but ours is. We must make the choice to continue to be parents and manage screen time for them, especially during the quarantine when routines have evaporated.
What is the right amount of screen time during the quarantine? The same as it was a few months ago. But you already knew that.
How to Manage Screens During a Quarantine
Your focus during the quarantine, just like other times, should be school, life skills, and family time. Every minute spent on unnecessary screens (gaming and social media) takes time out of one of these three critical areas. Many parents have seen the writing on the wall and decided to prevent screen problems in their home by delaying recreational screens. They have done the math: five hours of daily gaming over one month is 150 hours that could be invested in a life skill or hobby.
It is still possible for (exhausted) parents to limit screen time even when routines have been disrupted. Here’s how:
Allow the screen hours that are necessary or mandatory for distance learning.
Classroom screen activity should take priority. You can then add a little time for other non-addictive screen time like Skyping with grandparents, building a music playlist, or even doing extra homework. But keep an eagle eye on their screen activities so you don’t end up like the mom I recently spoke with who reported that her daughter was watching porn the whole time she thought she was doing homework on her school laptop.
Plan for what other tasks need to be accomplished for the day.
In our home, we don’t want our kids to get the idea that they are living in a hotel, so chores are done by everyone. We also work on life skills that are missing from their life resume; things like making meals, organizing, cleaning, and fixing things. Make sure to also include time for exercise, being creative offline, and socializing (even if it’s just talking on the phone for now).
Give them a break.
If your kids start to get restless, take a small break every hour or so to spend 10 minutes regrouping with them. Refresh the snack tray, pull out the next board game, pop some popcorn for their scheduled afternoon reading session, and don’t forget a quick hug. This new routine takes structure, planning, and a happy attitude on your part. You can do this. Trust me, you don’t want to face the nightmare of reversing bad screen habits when this is all over.
Remember that boredom is the first step for creativity.
Downtime is key—the player with the best downtime strategy wins the game. When your kids start filling their own downtime with tangible activities like reading, practicing music, throwing a ball, hanging from a tree—anything but slithering into a screen coma—your family will win the screen balance game.
Are you working from home and desperate for a screen babysitter? Screens work as a powerful distraction, but think of what else your brilliant kids could do. Quarantine the screens, but not your kid’s imagination. They can fill time with art, puzzles, building models, knitting, or home projects like organizing or cleaning out their closet, or detailing the car while you work. Don’t think your kids would do that? They will because you are their coach and you are leading your team.
Make time to be present, have fun, and talk with your kids.
Spending time with your kids is more important than screen time. Everyone will like each other more when you transition your screen-filled day to a screen-free evening. There is no way you can really enjoy your kids when everyone is glued to a screen after dinner. Time for meaningful conversations is a must, so don’t allow screen time between dinner and bedtime (unless you choose a family movie to enjoy together). Start a tradition to take a family walk after dinner or just go outside together.
The next time you read an article or your teen tries to convince you that you need to be more screen-lenient during this quarantine, hold your ground with confidence. If needed, get the support of a like-minded friend and re-read this blog post together. You are doing the right thing by keeping your screen limits tight right now. Trust your instincts and keep that bar high. You can be ScreenStrong!
If you want to reduce screen time in your home, take our free week-long ScreenStrong Challenge and get a glimpse of what life can be like when you remove video games and social media for one week. Learn how to become a ScreenStrong Family today!
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder and executive director of ScreenStrong, a national nonprofit organization that offers a countercultural approach to eliminate childhood screen dependency, but one that just might save your kids. Melanie has developed cutting-edge programs that empower parents to pause video games and social media for kids and teens through late adolescence. Her three books can be found on Amazon: Will Your Gamer Survive College?, Can Your Teen Survive—and Thrive—Without a Smartphone? and The ScreenStrong Solution: How to free your child from addictive screen habits.
ScreenStrong is committed to rescuing this screen-driven generation, one family at a time.
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