Kids and screen time: How parents can manage during prolonged pandemic

Brett Molina
As of August, 70% of parents estimated their kids spend at least four hours a day with screens.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Edwards’ two kids were on a limited screen time budget. After they returned home from school and got through their after-school routine, they would get maybe an hour or two a day.

When the pandemic started, Edwards, like many Americans across the country, worked from home while their kids’ school closed, eventually transitioning to online learning. Limits on screen time were tossed out.

Now, her kids’ schools have reopened and they’ve returned to some of their normal routines. But Edwards, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida, says returning to those screen time limits has been challenging.

“It’s been like trying to put the toothpaste back in the bottle,” said Edwards. “The kids have gotten so used to being occupied by their screens that it is now a struggle to get them off the screens.”

COVID-19 led to school closures, which also meant disrupting after-school activities including team sports. Quarantining pushed parents working remotely to relax screen time rules as they juggled their jobs and kids thrust into online schooling.

Now we’re approaching one year with quarantines and social distancing, with seemingly no end in sight. Does that mean rethinking how we approach screen time with our kids?

How parents are coping

Before the pandemic, 60% of parents said their children spent no more than three hours a day on devices, found an August survey of U.S. parents by data intelligence firm Morning Consult. As of August, 70% of parents estimated their kids spend at least four hours a day with screens.

The increased screen time has concerned some parents, especially as the pandemic drags on.  

“The additional time they spend online has let them try out all these different platforms and I’m not familiar with every platform and how to govern it,” said Edwards. 

But it’s not just parents who want to dial back on screen time. It appears some kids are exhausted by them, too.

“There’s less and less for kids to do outside of screens and remote school, and a lot of kids are actually quite burned out on screens,” said Devorah Heitner, an expert on young people’s use of technology and author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) In Their Digital World.”

Dr. Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, the founder and president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, says she has talked to several parents who “found it difficult to navigate screen time limits at a time when their children are no longer able to see friends and as online learning continues to become the new normal.”

Kandiss-Jo Tschida of Phoenix says her four kids didn’t have as many restrictions with screen time, other than taking away their devices if they got in trouble. Now, she no longer punishes her kids by taking screen time but pays extra attention to how they use screens. “I definitely check their browser history a little bit more because you can’t watch them 24/7,” she said.

In Texas, Victor Vega and his wife decided to home school their three kids during the pandemic in a program that doesn't require much online learning. As a result, they have placed tighter limits on when and how long they can use devices, which they’ve adjusted after they noticed their kids weren’t getting as much physical exercise as they should.

“Now we try to push gadget time to the very end of the day,” said Vega.

‘A silver lining’

While the battle over the laptop, or tablet, or video game console consumes some American households, this increased immersion into technology has had some benefits.

Tschida says her daughter has benefitted by engaging with friends on apps or games like Minecraft. “She’s got social anxiety, and I’ve noticed that she’s actually more social,” she said.

Edwards said her kids have used the opportunity to become more informed, citing “fantastic discussions” during the election sparked by videos on TikTok explaining some of the key political issues.

Vega said his brother, who regularly visited his kids, recently moved to Arkansas, but have been able to keep in touch through video apps like FaceTime.

Many parents might feel guilt or blame for allowing their kids to sit in front of screens so much. Hurst Della-Pietra advises parents to not be so hard on themselves.

“There is a silver lining in some of this,” she said. “Kids have learned some new skills and new apps and new programs, and they are finding ways to be creative and to connect.”

Advice for parents

If you’re a parent and want to find some fresh ways to get kids to take a break, here are some tips:

Think analog. Heitner suggests ditching devices for something more analog, like a physical book to read or puzzles and board games to try.

Create some new routines. Before getting on screens, make sure kids are getting essential activities done like finishing up homework or getting regular exercise. “It is important for parents to guide their children and teens to be mindful and intentional about their day,” said Hurst-Della Pietra. She also advises parents who want to revisit new limits on screens to pull them together as part of a broader family media plan. 

Take those devices at night. This feels obvious, but don’t let their screen time affect their health, especially sleep. “That’s the one time where I feel it’s appropriate to have a really hard line,” said Heitner.

Lead by example. Any analog activities don’t have to be just for kids. Turning things like craft time or board game night into a family event can help. 

When to worry?

Hurst Della-Pietra said parents should look out for signs such as lack of sleep, irritability, and reclusiveness in kids. If it looks like they’re just passively scrolling on apps like social media, it might be another sign to take a break.

Heitner also advises parents to watch if it appears their time online is hurting their relationships. “Some kids get pretty loud, for example, when they play video games,” she said. “What if they’re calling their friends like really mean words or they’re getting aggressive? That’s a situation where I would definitely intervene.”