Do Screen Time Rules Matter in a Pandemic? Try This Approach

I knew we had reached peak screen saturation in my home as I watched my youngest son log onto a Zoom call and then, realizing he wanted his brother included, walked over and sat next to him on the couch. My eldest was on Facetime and they quickly realized they were live streaming a live stream. Aside from the obvious audio challenges and the undoubtedly confusing experience of the grandparents on both of their calls, my kids were thrilled. “We’ve got videos in videos!!” they shouted.

And this pretty much sums up learning, working, and teaching at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Screen time rules change during COVID-19 pandemic as child does distance learning alongside parent working
In my pre-Covid world, I am often in school gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias delivering workshops to parents and educators about the impact of media on kids and teens. I’ve spent my career translating research and working to help kids and families identify their strengths online and offline.

What screen time rules make sense now?

My inbox is full of questions from parents and caregivers right now whose pre-pandemic attempts to create digital balance need a reality check or whose pre-pandemic screen time challenges are now magnified. Many share the same questions including, “Are there new screen time rules now that everyone is in online school?” and “We certainly appreciate what screens are doing right now, but it is also totally overwhelming and kind of awful to be online all day. Any suggestions?”

The good news is that my responses to these questions during the pandemic do not rely on an entirely new framework. We can move forward with an approach that was useful before the pandemic and will be useful to us going forward:

It’s time for a systems approach to screen time.

Reframing the question about screen time rules

Screen time is just one part of our family systems. It is a powerful part, but just one part nonetheless. We are not sitting down to craft our ideal digital lives right now. We are parenting through a pandemic. It is not a helpful time to draw rigid rules around media without taking family needs and context into account. This has always been true, but is especially clear now.

In other words, instead of asking “How much screen time should kids have right now?” I suggest asking the question,

“What is the best we can do right now to keep ourselves safe, connected, and healthy during this crisis?”

This might involve some difficult-to-set-but-targeted screen time rules and limits. It might involve listening to our kids to better understand when tech is helping and when it is hurting their abilities to cope. It will absolutely involve more flexibility and creativity.

When we reframe the question, we also make space for the reality that the impacts of this pandemic are not distributed evenly in our communities. That each of us has our own unique set of needs, opportunities, losses, and trade-offs. A phone might be an essential lifeline for a teenager who doesn’t feel safe in one home, or a negative sleep disrupter in another. Extra screen time might be an essential respite in one family, or be getting in the way of crucial stress-reducing play in another.

This is NOT to say that all boundaries and limits go out the window and that kids will benefit from a total free-for-all of “videos in videos” for the foreseeable future. Young children especially need us to focus on warm interaction, talking and play more than ever. This IS to say that we can and should approach screen time research and recommendations with our own family needs in mind.

To do this we will need to look up from our devices and towards each other to answer the question, “What do we need right now?”

Getting started

Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself that you are doing the very best you can. This is decidedly not the time to add screen time guilt to your long list of worries. Still want guidance? The research points to some essential questions to think about:

How do we feel?

One child can feel connected, creative and inspired online and another can feel isolated, irritable and left out. This can be true using the exact same game or app. Alternatively, content also matters. Which games, apps, or content make us feel better and which make us feel worse? Pay attention to your child and pay attention to quality over quantity during this time.

Distinguish between online activities that are “required” and activities where we have more choice. Prioritize media content and online activities that make us feel more calm and connected. Use reviews as a guide for what to try next.

Are we prioritizing connection?

Research makes it clear that connection is our primary way to recover from stress and how we cultivate joy and purpose. This is why the WHO recommends physically distancing while nurturing social connections. This can be especially challenging for teenagers, whose developmental task is to separate from parents and move out into the world with their peers. Children who use technology to connect with friends do better than children who use technology as a means of escaping social interactions. This is true when it comes to social media and gaming. This is also a time for more “co-viewing” media together as families, a huge protective factor for kids. Family movie nights, sharing podcasts, playing video games together and watching YouTube videos side-by-side are all ways to create shared media experiences.

On the other hand, the research also reminds us that online connections, while essential during shelter-in-place, shouldn’t crowd out face-to-face interaction within families sheltering in place together. Children may not be asking for tech breaks, but they need them. Do we have at least one time per day where we don’t have to, in the words of Sherry Turkle, “compete over the roar of the Internet” for each other’s attention? Choose a time and prioritize it. Every single day.

Are we protecting the spaces that allow us to recover from stress and recharge?

There is no doubt that anxiety is escalating in this uncertain and overwhelming time for all kinds of reasons. This means that we need to double down on our commitment to things that help us recharge. We need to be fierce protectors of the basics including:

Finally, each of us has our own unique stress recovery toolkit. Strategies might include moving, coloring, petting the family pet, wrestling, singing, writing and more. What works? Protect and practice these strategies.

Are we focusing on what matters?

It turns out that we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time. A certain amount of multitasking and butterfly learning is part of life, especially when tasks don’t demand deep focus. But chronic multitasking not only causes us to make more errors and takes more time (causing distance learning activities to take all day), but it is also associated with higher levels of anxiety. Experiment with singletasking and see how it feels. Need even more support? Try Apps that help you focus on what matters.

Are we able to revisit these questions?

What works one week in a pinch might feel awful the next. What we are capable of providing our kids will likely change over time. Our family systems are dynamic and we have to give ourselves permission to shift, edit, and revise our digital lives.

The good news is that as we answer and re-answer the question, “What is the best we can do right now to keep ourselves safe, connected, and healthy?” we are strengthening skills that will serve us far beyond this pandemic – both online and offline.