Screen Time Guidance for Children During the Quarantine

Among the many challenges facing parents in these uncertain times is the question of how much screen time is too much for their developing children? Since the coronavirus-related shutdowns, the American Academy of Pediatrics has updated its media recommendations for young children including limiting digital media to just an hour a day.  However, with parents juggling work responsibilities, remote learning at home for their children, and their own personal state of mind, these guidelines might seem like a distant pipe dream. In this post, we hope to shed light on the question of screen time and provide strategies for families moving forward through the end of the school year and into the summer months.

Screen time is a misleading term since it lumps all screens (phone, tablet, TV, computer) together and does not differentiate between what types of content is on those screens. Moving forward, parents should rethink the general term “screen time” and instead focus on the content on those screens and how parents and children engage with that content.


Media and Executive Function

Media of all types is competing for our attention. What we choose to pay attention to is called our attention economy. Giving our attention to one source of media, such as a TV show or social media on our phones, means we’re not focusing on other things. No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, research suggests that cognitive performance suffers when comparing multi-taskers with non multi-taskers. Controlling what our attention is focused on requires executive function skills. These skills allow us to inhibit distractions and maintain our focus for the task at hand. These skills don’t fully develop until our mid-20s, so it is especially hard for children to focus and refocus their attention in the presence of distractions. When considering media and screen use for children, keep in mind what other tasks children are doing. Background media use can be especially distracting. If a child hears buzzers, alarms and other alerting noises in a background TV broadcast, their attention will be shifted away from their task at hand. If your child is trying to focus on a game or on schoolwork, consider turning off background noises and media use.

Be sure to check out this Family Digital Wellness Guide from Boston Children’s Hospital

Beware of In-App Purchases

Some of the apps and games your young children and teens are playing may include the option to purchase “loot boxes” or spend money to become better at the game. These mechanics rely on people’s preference for instant gratification and inability to delay gratification. For children’s developing executive function skills, it’s often difficult to forego a small reward now for a larger reward later. Children also have difficulty understanding the concept of money and online transactions, which makes certain games particularly harmful for children and their parent’s wallets.

Now is a good time to talk with your children and work with them to scaffold their interaction with these apps and games. Help your child deal with frustrations and develop a growth mindset when it comes to playing video games. This will help shift your child’s attitude from “I can’t win because I didn’t buy the loot box” to “Losing is part of the journey to getting better.” Finally, be aware of the potential in-app purchases your child has access to and closely monitor their access to spending real money.


Benefits of Technology Use

In the early 19th century there was a moral panic about people – and children – reading books. Critics were concerned about children becoming more aggressive, being poisoned by ideas and books being harmful to the current culture. Similar concerns have been echoed during the popularization of radio, TV, computers, the internet and now smartphones. The advent of new technology certainly brings some valid concerns. Not all use of new technology is developmentally appropriate, but it is important to recognize that new technology is beneficial and scaffolding children’s interactions with that technology will help develop positive habits later in life.

Social media and video calls can be essential for developing  children and teens to maintain social relationships and keep up with their friends. Certain age-appropriate video games like Minecraft can help develop key hand-eye coordination skills and promote creativity. Age-appropriate TV shows are structured to present stories in bite-sized chunks that make it easier for children to follow along. If you are curious if a certain game, app, TV show or movie is appropriate for your child, Common Sense Media provides an excellent breakdown of the content your child will be consuming.

The more you can engage with your children regarding their media use, the better. Ask open-ended questions about the shows they are watching and take an interest in the games they are playing. Being autonomy supportive and developing trust will make it more likely that your child will come to you if they have worrisome interactions with media.

Make a Media Plan

In our previous posts we discuss the importance of setting schedules and routines to help your children stay on task and be productive while under a stay-at-home order. Plans and routines help us develop habits and monitor our progress. This can also help us develop a healthy relationship with media use. A family media plan helps establish an agreement between all members of the family and how they will engage with media. It is important that all members of the family work on this plan together. Parents following this plan will help model the behavior for their children. Here are some common themes in a media plan:

  • Establish screen-free times
    • E.g., during dinner, while walking across the street, 1 hour before bed
  • Device curfews
    • Establish where devices will stay overnight to charge
  • Identify types of media and who will engage with it
    • Which programs can be watched alone, which programs will be co-viewed
    • Parent commitment to sharing media experience with children
  • Identify offline activities
  • Establish online etiquette
    • Create guidelines for how to act online, when to check messages and reply to emails
  • Create digital safety rules
    • What types of information we can post online, where we can share this info, how to be safe in online spaces, etc.

Media plans are dynamic and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so make sure to revisit the media plan as appropriate and make changes if they are required. Here is an online version of a media plan to get your family started.

Transition Meltdowns

Transitions between activities are notoriously hard for children. This is especially true when children are asked to transition away from engaging with media. When facilitating transitions, being flexible and giving your child agency will go a long way. Start by being aware of the type of media your child is engaged with. If your child is socializing with others online, then an abrupt end to the conversation might be harder than if they are watching TV on their own. Provide cues and reminders for children leading up to the transition. Reward positive behavior rather than punishing negative behavior. If your child ends their media time on their own with minimal reminders, reward them with more media time later.

Allowing children the agency of engaging with media independently while providing them the necessary scaffolding to navigate the media environment will help them develop healthy media habits for the rest of their lives.

For more parenting tips to get you through  parenting during coronavirus, check out our other posts:

About the Author:

Andrei SemenovAndrei Semenov is currently earning his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. His primary research interests are in how reflection and mindfulness training can help improve executive function skills. Currently, Andrei is working on a parenting program that promotes reflection and collaborative problem solving between parents and their children. Andrei has worked with the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing where he helped develop and evaluate programs that promote mindfulness for teachers and educators. Andrei earned his B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder where he studied how overscheduling children into extra-curricular activities may be associated with changes in their executive function skills. He has written and presented his work at academic conferences as well as in peer-reviewed academic journals.

EF to Go

Get a scientifically proven, quantitative measure of student Executive Function with the free EFgo app