There’s no denying the last year has been difficult for everyone, but perhaps especially parents. With schools closed and the need to work from home unavoidable in many cases, parents were left scrambling, trying to figure out how to educate and entertain their kids while also getting their work done.
In many cases, parents had to put their kids in front of screens far more than they ever would have before. In fact, most age groups saw a 10 to 30 percent increase in daily screen time over the course of 2020.
Slowly but surely, life is returning to normal. Schools are reopening, adults are returning to the office, and everyone 16 and up is now eligible for the vaccine. But kids are still stuck in the habit of turning to screens more than they would have pre-pandemic. And parents are wondering what, if anything, to do about it.
Understanding Screen Time Recommendations
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages the following screen time limits:
- With the exception of video chatting, no screen time for kids 18 months and younger
- For kids 18 to 24 months, no solo screen time use, though high-quality programming and apps can be introduced by caregivers
- For kids 2 years and older, no more than an hour a day of screen time. Co-viewing and co-play is highly recommended
There are several reasons for these recommendations—and there’s research to back those recommendations up.
“The risk of too much screen time is that there can be stunted neural development, especially in the context of appreciating social cues,” board certified psychiatrist Sasha Hamdani, MD, recently explained. “Furthermore the blue light from screens can inhibit melatonin production and delay sleep cycles, which can further cause issues for the next day.”
But that doesn’t mean the extra screen time most kids have enjoyed over the year is all detrimental.
Clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, explained that screen time recommendations aren’t really one size fits all. “For example, time spent on face time chatting with friends is not equivalent to time spent mindlessly scrolling through a message board,” she said.
Instead, she believes parents should be realistic when considering the type of screen time their kids are engaged in.
“Specifically, time spent in live video games with same-aged peers may actually be more productive than sitting alone in isolation,” Romanoff explained. “We must work with the limited resources for socialization due to the pandemic, especially if that means more screen time.”
The Pandemic Impact
If you are a parent who previously cared a great deal about following screen time recommendations, only to have thrown those recommendations out the window over the last year—you’re not alone.
“Parents have experienced a double negative effect when it comes to screen time usage at home,” Romanoff said. “Not only are fewer external resources available for children to engage in (school socialization, extracurricular activities, and events) but parents are more mentally taxed and have less to provide emotionally, taking on more roles when most caregivers were already overstretched pre-pandemic.”
The result: more screen time for kids whose parents simply couldn’t do it all. Which, for the record, was most parents.
Hamdani explained, “With kids being at home more (even independent of screen time from remote learning) and parents attempting to work remotely, there was a huge surge in screen time being used as distraction technique or as the babysitter.”
Parents had plenty of reasons to rely more on screens over the last year, and no one is judging those who did. But as life returns to something a little closer to normal, some parents may be wondering how they can possibly revert back to rules they’ve now ignored for over a year.
How to Transition Back
“I have had this conversation so much recently,” Hamdani said. “There is definitely some anticipatory anxiety into reentering the normal world and patients having to restructure how they relax or entertain themselves.”
If you’re feeling that way for yourself, it makes perfect sense you would be feeling the same for your kids. And the biggest recommendation Hamdani has for navigating this particular transition is this: “For parents attempting to reduce screen time, my one advice is don’t go cold turkey,” she said. “You’re going to have a rebellion on your hands.”
Instead, she recommends parents start co-watching with their kids when possible, recommending a replacement activity you can do together instead of screen time here and there. Over time, she said you can taper down the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen by adding more activities.
Romanoff makes the following recommendations for reinstituting new (technically old) screen time rules:
- Talk to your kids about why the rules are changing
- Provide them with concrete examples of things they can do besides being on their screens (playing with friends, making an art project, biking outside, etc.)
- Start with a low threshold—don’t try to change the rules too much, too fast
- Remain consistent
“Learning takes time,” she explained. “We want to ensure a smooth transition to the new normal and slowly prepare children to ramp up functioning and learning to pre-pandemic standards.”
She acknowledged that the transition to post-pandemic life will be challenging for some, but said the power is in parent’s hands to help their kids navigate that. You get to set the rules and the system for navigating those rules. And most importantly: you get to set the example for what that transition looks like.
And it is a transition most families should be considering, according to Hamdani. “It is important to start that reduction is screen time now so that we minimize the neurobiological stunting for growing, developing brains,” she said.
But she doesn’t want to see parents beating themselves up, either. “Honestly, I think it is important for parents and providers to be realistic and forgiving,” Hamdani said. “If there is a net reduction in screen time, then you are moving in the right direction. It doesn’t have to be all at once or right away.”