During this time of social distancing and stay-at-home government mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many children of all ages have increased their daily screen time.
Not to worry, says Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University and an expert in media effects, such as video gaming and virtual reality.
Ferguson said during this strange period in history that additional screen time for children is healthy so they may maintain their social contacts and interact with their peer groups.
“As long as it is kept in balance with other activities that kids need to do,” Ferguson said in an interview from his home in Orlando. “One of the things that will face all of us right now, whether it’s the kids or adults, is social isolation.
“We can’t spend face time with friends or with community groups or go to parties. We know that type of isolation can actually have some negative mental health consequences.”
Social media screen time, which has been cursed in the past by experts in the field, now has become something of a Godsend for the mental health of children, especially those in the pre-teen and teenager categories.
“One of the ways for kids to alleviate that isolation and maintain their friendships in social relationships is through screens, such as playing with other kids through video games online, interact with their smart phone with social media,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said he is not recommending “unmitigated screen time” for children, but giving them a chance to communicate with their friends, which they would normally see at school or other social functions.
“We want to make sure that kids are getting some time to exercise, that kids get their school work done and they get adequate sleep every night,” he said.
“Children need at from eight to 10 hours of sleep at night. We don’t want screen time dominating their lives, but in terms of limiting kids to one or two hours of screens at this point is pretty far down the list of things parents should be worried about.”
They also need exercise.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation children ages 8-18, before the pandemic, were spending an average of 7.5 hours in front of a screen daily, just for entertainment, according to a report on cdc.gov.
The CDC recommends kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
“You can put screens into different boxes,” he said. “Obviously, kids are going to be spending a lot of time on screens for school and that should not count. That’s school and should not count as recreational screen time.
“Parents might need to relax a bit and accept their kids are probably going to spend more time on screens now than they might during a normal period of our history.”
Ferguson said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely change social behavior in years to come. People will likely avoid large crowds and favor smaller gatherings of folks they know.
“We don’t really know what this virus is going to do to our society yet,” he said. “I think we can reasonably suggest it’s going to change things and we’ll do things differently. We just don’t know what.”