Managing screen time during a pandemic and beyond

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By Jenny Demark

It is likely fair to say that most of us developed some strange screen habits during the early days of the pandemic. News bingeing, Netflix marathons and constant texting with friends and relatives became common occurrences. Given the unusual circumstances we were living in, these were probably healthy ways to manage our stresses and fears. If we had kids at home (all day! every day!), most of us allowed them more screen time than we were previously comfortable with. Again, this was not a bad thing. Our children and teens needed things to do, and we needed them to be occupied so we could get work done.

But now that we are getting back to some “normalcy” (written with fingers tightly crossed), how can we re-establish rules for our children around technology? We know that excessive screen use is problematic and that most kids cannot regulate it on their own. The following tips may help you to find better screen balance in your home.

Model healthy screen use – Children learn so much from the behaviour of their parents, so an important first step is to become aware of how much and when we are using our own screens. Do you have the TV on even when doing other things, such as exercising, doing chores or making meals? Do you have a phone in your pocket at all times? Do you jump from the dinner table whenever a notification pings? Before we can expect good screen behaviour from our children, we may need to curb some of our own unhealthy habits first.

Help them find other things to do – One of the first complaints from kids when they are told to turn off their devices is that they have “nothing to do!” (insert dramatic eye roll here). Because they have been relying on screens for so long during the pandemic, they legitimately may have forgotten their other options. Exercise and getting outside are obviously great non-screen choices. Quiet, creative activities (such as building with Lego, reading, drawing, playing music, listening to music, colouring, etc.) are very soothing. They restore our self-regulation abilities and decrease stress in ways that screens simply do not. Face-to-face interactions with friends, when COVID-safe, are also great ways to rejuvenate.

Use technology together – Watching a movie, playing a video game or researching information are ways to share screen time with our kids. Shared screen time, while still not as healthy for us as exercising or creating, is a much better option than every family member being alone in their rooms on different screens.

Create a screen-time contract – Sit down and collaboratively develop the rules of screen use for the family. Basic elements of the contract could include the allotted time for individual screen use per day, with weekends being different than weekdays. Then add specifics that apply to your family (e.g., no screens at the dinner table, screens turned off 30 minutes before bed, screens allowed during car rides longer than 20 minutes, screens only after homework is completed). It’s important to add information about the consequences when rules are broken – penalty of lost screen time can be very motivating.

Be aware of developmental and individual differences – Toddlers and preschoolers do not benefit from screen use and do they need screens in their daily lives. School-age children often require some level of technology for school and socialization, but they do not need a personal device on them at all times. Many teenagers feel pressure to be available to friends at all hours of the day, and they will likely be resistant to efforts to curb their usage. However, parents can still establish rules (such as no phones in the bedroom overnight, putting phones aside while concentrating on homework) to promote a healthier balance. And regardless of age, some kids become quite dysregulated when using technology and are more prone to screen addiction, while others can manage screens in a more mature way. Different children may need different rules. Be flexible with your expectations and realize that they will change over time as your children grow and mature.

Screens, with their myriad benefits and problems, are undoubtedly here to stay. As we emerge from pandemic isolation, parents have an important role in helping children develop healthy technology habits.

Jenny Demark, Ph.D., C.Psych, is a psychologist who lives in the Glebe and works nearby.

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