Should I Worry About My Kids’ Screen Time During the Pandemic?
How one crisis can put our kids at risk for a second crisis.
By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder of ScreenStrong
With all that’s going on in the world right now, should parents worry about how much time their kids spend on screens? After all, most have embarked on distance learning, and screens seem to be their only way to socialize with friends for now.
Even still, the answer to that question is yes, parents should be concerned.
This quarantine could mark a terrible turning point for kids who are at-risk for problematic screen use. It doesn’t take a pandemic for a child to move from being at-risk to full-blown screen dependency. Any change in routine that gives a child more recreational screen time can make that child more susceptible to addiction.
A mother in North Carolina came face-to-face with this fact after her son broke his leg. The accident left him housebound and isolated. He couldn’t participate on his soccer team for six weeks. That spiral triggered his gaming addiction and marked the turning point that changed his life. He lost interest in sports and never played on a team again.
This story should remind every parent that we need to be on guard right now, and not just to avoid COVID-19. Situations like this can throw everything in your life off balance—especially screen time—when our normal routines are disrupted. If we aren’t careful, social distancing and quarantining could be a tipping point for kids to dive deeper into the habit of mindless social media scrolling and video gaming. And while some memes may give parents permission to let screen rules slide, how we choose to spend this time can lead to long-term repercussions.
You may not have a choice over what is happening because of COVID-19, but you do have a choice over how much recreational screen time you allow during this crisis.
Short-Term Screen Binging Hurts in the Long Run
Extra screen hours now can lead to unhealthy screen habits later. As your teens find themselves in front of screens more than usual, they will become moody, lose focus, and struggle to handle the distractions and temptations that are only one click away. Your teen may be very intelligent, but he is not mature. The teen brain craves low-effort/high-reward activities. Teens also crave novelty, which is why they are so enthralled by interactive video games, streaming videos, and social media feeds. They tend to bypass common sense and head straight for risky behavior on social media. This will be an even greater challenge as their time in front of screens increases.
Every activity your child does shapes her brain. So if your teen binges on Snapchat because she craves social interaction or your son plays video games for several hours a day while school is closed, critical judgment pathways do not receive enough attention, while the reward and pleasure center gets too much. Even though parents are desperate for a break and screen time is an easy go-to, using screens for downtime activities is a bad temporary fix that could lead to future screen regrets. Just ask the mother of the boy who broke his leg.
Not All Screens Are Equal
While screens can be a much-needed tool for learning, working, and even staying in touch with extended family, all screen use is not created equal. Recreational screen media such as video games and social media do not fit this “learning” category because their persuasive design makes them problematic and even addictive. Your child won’t get addicted to building a spreadsheet, but will become dependent on his game or phone. Like any other dependency the risk is increased with more exposure.
Is your son’s video game his favorite activity? If so, he is already at a higher risk to develop a gaming dependency. This quarantine could put him over the edge. Now is not the time for your daughter to spend mindless hours on social media. It will make her even more anxious and stressed. Porn sites are offering free accounts during the quarantine and afternoon internet traffic has already doubled. There’s also an uptick in online predators.
How to Avoid Creating a Screen Dependency During Quarantine
The good news is that we can be vigilant and make other choices. By following the guidelines we offer for being a ScreenStrong family, we can prevent problematic screen use from happening whether we are living in a time of normalcy or a pandemic. Here’s how:
Reduce the use.
Choose now to reduce recreational screen use. Pause video games and social media instead of trying to manage them. If you’ve set screen rules, stick to them. Every day is not the weekend, especially in a health crisis. You set rules for a reason and those reasons haven’t changed. Unscheduled time has the potential to get wasted on mindless screen time, especially since kids gravitate toward low-effort/high-reward screen activities. Avoid that pitfall by setting a schedule and adhering to it.
Rethink the devices.
Your teen no longer needs a smartphone to be in touch with you since you are now in the same location. Let them build spreadsheets, Zoom with their teachers, and complete their assignments online. But for social interactions with friends, encourage voice calls and video conferencing instead of social media and gaming. Your goal should be to lower the risks.
Reclaim your child.
Now is a time to focus on life skills, learn new hobbies, create, read, and exercise. This is an opportunity for kids to engage in activities they might not otherwise have time for. Let your kids cook, clean, paint, learn an instrument on YouTube, read, take bike rides, etc. Important skills can be developed during social isolation if we don’t allow them to get lost in the virtual world.
Reconnect your family.
We will look back on this time for the rest of our lives, so let’s make some good memories. Spend time talking, telling stories, video chatting with extended family and friends, and playing games together. Use this time for purposeful bonding activities. Grab the popcorn and have a family movie night or watch an insightful documentary (such as Screened Out, releasing soon).
So, should we still worry about screen time during this pandemic? Yes. And we have to do more than worry about it; we need to stay hyper vigilant and not allow our children to be sucked into the virtual world. Let’s not let one crisis create another one. This time of quarantining has given us an opportunity to hit the pause button.
While we certainly didn’t plan this crisis, we have been handed an unexpected gift of time together. We often lament how quickly these early years fly by, so let’s make the best of it and use this opportunity to reset screen habits, slow down, and reconnect. Make this the turning point for drawing your family closer, not pushing it further apart.
Click here for answers to quarantine questions like “Can my daughter live without social media for a month?” and “How do I win the Fortnite war in my home?”
Wondering if your child is at-risk for screen dependency or you want more scientific facts about kids’ brains and screens? Visit ScreenStrong.com.
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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