12 Tips for Managing Screen Time

To help parents continue to navigate the unexpected challenges of raising kids amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has compiled a series of suggestions. Here are 12 tips geared towards parents of school-age children.

1. Find the silver lining. Remember that a key part of resilience is trading the efficiency of school and work for connection with your child. You are in this together as a family, and you have everyone’s creativity to explore this new space. Use this time to create new rituals and new reminders of the joy in being a family.

2. Create screen-free zones. As a family, agree on some times and places during the day when you will just be together, without the disruption of checking your screen. Meals, bedtime, game time, and walks around the block are all good times to stash your device and be fully present with each other and with the moment. With so much of life happening on screens, we need to protect quality time and places where we can simply connect with ourselves and each other, without digital distraction.

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3. Pick and choose. While structure is important, worried children may benefit from daily “choices” to help them feel like they can still maintain some sense of control (especially when everything around them seems chaotic)! For instance, when school is over for the day, tell them it’s time to play a game, but they can choose which one. If butting heads, try to offer them one of two options.

4. Prioritize and organize. If you’re a parent who’s working virtually from home, be sure to set realistic goals and create a schedule to match your workday. Recognize what meetings you need to “attend,” and what may be less important. If you have asynchronous work to complete, prioritize the most important deliverables, and help your children to do the same. Some teachers have virtual lessons that would be helpful for your children. Some teachers have pre-recorded lessons that you and your child can view at a time that works for both of you.

5. How can I help? Ask your children to come up with ways that they can help each other (and you). If they can’t think of anything, suggest ideas like “help each other not be bored,” or “help each other with schoolwork.” Post their “Helping Ideas” on the fridge and come up with new ideas every few days, or even every day.

6. Walk it out. Schedule breaks that involve physical activity and fresh air. Go for a walk, bounce a ball, skip rope, play hopscotch; the possibilities are endless when it comes to having fun and connecting with your child. Just make sure to follow all current social distancing guidelines any time you leave the house.

7. Mix it up. Treat your child’s mind with respect and kindness by mixing up the day with activities that’ll challenge different parts of their brain (for example, reading versus math). Monitor your kids for signs of fatigue, increased irritability, distractibility, and fidgeting, and take breaks for physical activity when necessary. Often, screen use only stimulates the visual and auditory part of the brain, which means senses like smell, touch, taste, and temperature are not being adequately stimulated. What the brain doesn’t use winds up growing less developed, so varied activities and challenges will help your child develop all of their senses.

8. Listen with your eyes. Non-verbal behavioural cues (such as a shrug of the shoulders or a furrowing of the brow) can provide helpful information about a child’s understanding of the content being shared with them. The same holds true even for online instruction. In the course of a lesson occurring in real time, make sure that your child presents both verbal and non-verbal cues to let the teacher know what may or may not be understood about a given concept, lesson, or assignment.

9. Make distance social. Embrace the opportunity to be social with distant friends and family. It can be difficult to connect with loved ones in other parts of the world during busy days at school and work, but consider the current situation an opportunity to connect/reconnect via video teleconferencing mediums. It can also be made into a fun, stress-free social studies “class” with your kids as they learn about other places, customs, and cultures.

10. Do your best. Off-screen activities are great, but you won’t always have the mental capacity to support non-screen tasks, and that’s totally fine. Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things… my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” By social distancing, your family is helping. And if that means you need to let your kids have a little extra television time in the midst of a crisis, that’s okay. Just be sure to find media you trust and keep an eye on what your kids are watching.

11. It’s okay to be bored. The next time your child complains to you about being bored, resist the urge to put a screen in front of them. Instead, let them sit with their boredom. It may make you both a bit uncomfortable at first, but it turns out that our brains are doing important work when we’re not actively engaged in a specific task. Neuroscientists call this the default mode of brain functioning, and it’s linked to a whole bunch of important skills, including self-awareness and empathy. So, instead of dreaming up another enriching activity to engage your children, let them get bored. Their developing brains will thank you.

12. Let’s get physical. Capitalizing on the ways in which digital technology can promote healthy activities can be fun for both parents and their children while staying at home. Turn on your streaming music service and have a dance party with your kids, or go old school with a Wii Fit for solo or team exercise and competition. There are also a variety of free and subscription-based apps that have family fitness content to provide fun and engaging ways to interact and exercise as a family.

As kids develop, experts recommend giving them more responsibility and autonomy, while at the same time keeping a close eye on their development and progress. It can be a challenging balance to strike, but hopefully these tips will help you and your kids find a safe, healthy, and happy middle ground as you grow and learn together.

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