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COVID-19: Kids and Screen Time During a Pandemic

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With us all being at home more we have come to rely our technologies to learn, to work, to stay connected, and to be entertained. 

Even with some stores and activities reopening, we are still heavily relying on screen time to get through our days.  For most parents, they are worried about how much their children’s screen time has increased, followed by feelings of guilt because they are either providing this screen time to distract their children as they work, or they can’t seem to stop their children from engaging in it. 

For children similarly to adults, their schooling has been on the screen, their only way to connect with friends has been on the screen, and their main entertainment outlet is on a screen.  As adults we worry less about our screen time as our brains have fully matured, but for children the argument is often how will this affect their cognitive development.

Prior to the pandemic the Canadian Paediatric Society recommended that children over 5 not engage in more than 2 hours of screen time per day, and children under 5 less than 2 hours as it can impede on all areas including mental health, attention development, and even vision impairments.   However, these recommendations are extremely difficult to apply in a pandemic.  Children are not in their typical environments spending their day at school, in after school activities, or playing out side with family and friends.  It’s recognized by majority of experts that this typical model of screen time is not a realistic option right now.  A professor from UBC stated directly “The screens are a symptom of something else going on. They’re not the problem” on a related CBC article.  I’ve stated in many articles that empathy is the most important value we can express right now, and that includes parents having empathy and forgiveness for themselves.  Increased screen time is an inevitable part of all our lives right now as there are very little other options.   In the grand scheme of our lives though this is a blip, and the biggest predictors of children’s healthy development depends more on genetics, and a loving supportive environment.

In creating a supportive environment during a pandemic, experts suggest to still have some routines and mandatory non-negotiable activities away from the screen each day such as daily hygiene habits, household chores, homework, an enjoyable non-screen related activity they enjoy such as a boardgame or reading, and outdoor time.  As long as they have these set non-negotiable boundaries, they are now free to choose how to spend the rest of their day.  Autonomy for children is particularly important starting as soon as they are mobile.  Children need to learn consequences of their choices. Parents generally have this feeling of protecting them from making mistakes, however, making mistakes and learning consequences is how our brain develops.  If a child chooses to spend their whole day playing video games and neglecting their responsibilities such as doing their homework, that will likely result in a poor grade.  If discussed later in a non-judgemental way that the poor grade was a result of their decision to play video games and not study, they may decide they don’t want to feel that failure again and to learn from that mistake.  Or alternatively, if they stay up too late on their iPad and are too tired to do their mandatory activities the next day, they’ll learn doing that activity is non-negotiable and that being tired makes it more difficult than doing it on full night’s rest.

There has also been some research showing effects of different types of screen time.  Excessive use of social media has been linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety in adolescents in many studies.  Based on this evidence, it would be good to discuss limiting screen time for social media with teenagers.  However, face time apps such as Facebook messenger for kids are considered to be a beneficial way for them to socialize and play games with their friends currently.  Many video games that kids are playing now they are playing with their friends.  So rather than fighting them on it, it’s encouraged to spend some time learning about their online games and the friends they are playing these with.  By showing acceptance and an active interest in their online activities you are also showing compassion and understanding that their lives have also changed without their choice on that.

So, to answer the original question as to how much is too much screen time right now? That answer varies depending on everyone’s unique situation.  Not all screen time is considered equal, and everyone’s screen time will vary depending on situations such as parents working in or out of the home, where you live, access to alternative resources etc.  The key takeaway is that now is a time for empathy, compassion, and forgiveness for ourselves, other parents, and children that this screen time is a symptom of the quarantine and not a choice.  This added screen time will likely not continue once we are able to go to work and school, to play baseball and go to dance classes, to go for a bike ride or the park with friends; essentially, when we are actually able to have a life outside the home again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christina Fuda is the Mental Health First Aid Coordinator at Ontario Shores. During the pandemic, she will be blogging regularly around the impact of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective. Send your suggestions for topics to @email  

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