Parenting in a Pandemic: Screen time during COVID-19

North Dakota State University Parenting Education Network hosted the third webinar in their five-part series Parenting in a Pandemic. The webinars are led by Erin Walsh, co-founder of the Spark & Stitch Institute based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This session shared supportive insights from research about screen time. Of the things that have intensified during the pandemic, screen time is at the top of the list. You are not alone if you feel both grateful and resentful of screens right now. You may appreciate the connective power of today’s technology, the entertainment, and even the diversion it provides, while at the same time resenting the limitations, what it doesn’t replace, and the power struggles it ignites.

Media and technology are not inherently good or bad; they are powerful. Think about how screens are helping your kids through connection, Facetime, happy diversions, etc. Then think about how screens are getting in the way of their ability to stay safe, healthy, and connected, such as staying up late, feeling there is nothing else to do, overuse, and lack of physical activity. The goal is to do the best we can do right now to stay safe, connected, and healthy.

Research has shown that too little screen time can be as harmful as too much. Mental wellbeing starts to decline at the extremes. However, it is more complicated than looking at just the amount of time kids spend on their screens. It is important to ask how and why are they using it, how do they feel about it, and how much and when do they use it. The three insights that follow will guide you in assessing these questions.

Insight #1: You have permission to pay attention to your child. Be curious. Think about why you go to certain online spaces and what you get out of it. Why do you go there? How does it make you feel? Have you ever gotten help or support here that you otherwise would not have gotten? When and how often do you go there? Keep these questions in mind when you watch your kids online and how the media helps or hurts them. Talk to them, watch their behaviors, and notice how they are feeling and if they are having physical symptoms.

Red flags are when you see kids concealing or sneaking time on their screens; tantrums or escalating behaviors at screen transitions (if they’re getting violent you may need to reach out for help); screens getting in the way of school, socializing, or health; or persistent changes in mood, sleep, or eating patterns. When you see red flags, parental control and monitoring can be a useful tool but should not be the only tool used. Walsh pointed out Common Sense Media, Circle with Disney, Bark, Family Time, and Dinner Time. While these are tools, it’s important to avoid the “catch and punish” approach to monitoring. It can erode trust and send kids to the darker part of the internet. Instead, talk to them about it first then install. Open communication is the best parental control. Be specific with expectations and skills. Instead of saying, “Stay safe,” explain what to look out for. For example, no one should ask them to keep a secret; no one should promise them money, games, or treats; no one should insist on them sharing pictures or personal information.

Monitoring is useful when kids first get their devices when they’re young. Sit down with kids and talk to them. Set limits and explain how not all places are safe. As they build skills and you see trust, you can back off. If you are concerned about what you see, think about ways to shift content, timing, duration, or monitoring of screen time. For example, “We’re not going to play that game, but here are the eight other games we love.” “Yes, play video games with your friends, but we’re done at 9 pm.”

Try to get the big picture. If your kid is spending more time online, try to understand the underlying things that make them seek it out. With rising anxiety and depression in kids, you may need to reach out for additional support.

Insight #2: Set boundaries where they matter most - in safety, health, and development. There are four key zones: sleep, study time, physical activity, and family time. If they are getting enough sleep, can focus during study time, get physical activity, and have connection with family at mealtime or other times, things may be ok even if screen time is high. Set up a system when and where devices are and are not allowed, keeping those four zones in mind, and be consistent. Since bad things on the internet increase at night; keep devices out of the bedroom, especially as they are growing up.

The transition of moving away from screen time to the next thing can be contentious. With elementary and older kids, you can talk to them about their brains and how they work and how devices are designed to hold their attention. Plant the seed of thinking about their relationship with their phone. Have predictable routines, let kids know ahead of time what the boundaries are and create a consistent ritual to transition away from screens. For younger kids, transition to another high reward activity that is meaningful to them. Use when - then language. “When this show is done, then we’re going to read a book together.”

Insight #3: Stay connected. This is probably the most powerful and most important insight. Talk to your kids. Balance control-based strategies with connection-based strategies. Play games with them. Wonder with them. Watch with them. Interact with them. Build time with them around screen time. Then when things get tricky or unsafe, you have a lot more good will to rest on as a family.

Walsh responded to a question about dual households. In dual households, you don’t need the exact same rules, but there should be alignment on the four major zones (sleep, study, activity, and family time). If there is disagreement, do what you can to communicate that there are different rules in different houses. Don’t undercut the other house rules. Many times, there is an over- and under- parenting dynamic. One parent thinks screen time is a big deal, the other does not. One may compensate for the other by being more or less serious than before. Try to stop this right away to avoid being pushed further apart and reach out to a facilitator if you need to.

Finally, involve your kids in setting agreements. Frame the conversation: How will we stay connected? How will we stay safe? How will we treat each other? How are we going to take care of ourselves? Start with just one or two non-negotiable rules that will give you the most positive outcomes and work out the rest together.

While media and technology are powerful, the good news is that research shows that parents modeling conversations and connections are very powerful as well.

Registration for this series can be found on the NDSU Parent Education Network website at under Programs and Events. Setting Limits and Avoiding Power Struggles will be at 7:00 p.m. on April 28. Loosen but Don’t Let Go: Helping Teens Cope with COVID will be at 7:00 p.m. on May 26.

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