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A Parents’ Guide to Screen Time During Coronavirus

By Adam Holz
By Paul Asay
By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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Screen time and kids
Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of our screens and how we use them. We should always be their masters—and never let them be masters over us.

COVID-19, popularly known as the coronavirus, has sickened hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and those numbers grow every day. But even if you’re lucky enough to never catch the virus, you’ve been impacted by it. We all have been.

Most Americans have been on virtual lockdown since the beginning of March. Sports have been suspended. Businesses have closed. Restaurants have shut their doors. Even many national parks and hiking trailheads have stopped welcoming visitors, and many state governments are encouraging people to only leave their homes if they have to.

But the coronavirus hasn’t taken our screens. And while those screens provide a window into a broader world and a tantalizing promise of, at least, a temporary escape from today’s scary headlines, they come with their own problems—and, perhaps their own sort of sicknesses. We can grow distracted and dependent on those screens, and the coronavirus increases both that dependence and our need for that distraction.

Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of our screens and how we use them. We should always be their masters—and never let them be masters over us.

Why to be Wary of Too Much Screen Time

Televisions, laptops, tablets, smartphones and other forms of technology are wonderful tools we can use to connect with others (at a time when connecting with others is more difficult, and more important, than ever), become more informed, save time and entertain ourselves. However, when they become impediments to our physical, social, and emotional health, those tools become tyrants. They may contribute to a lot of wasted time and, in the case of our children, interfere with normal emotional and relational development.

Therefore, some thoughtful consideration is needed regarding how our children may use technology to their advantage and avoid the negative aspects of spending too much time tethered to devices—even now, when the temptation is especially great.

Specifically, paying attention to the relative safety, age appropriateness, and potential health risks of interaction with technology can help parents set some healthy limits for its use.

Paying attention? When do I have time to pay attention?” you ask. We’ve got our own screens to view, whether we’re using them to create another spreadsheet or (ahem) take a mental health  break by checking Instagram or playing Words With Friends. You get the picture. Setting healthy limits starts with us, because our children learn from observing us and are ever ready to pounce at the slightest hint of hypocrisy.

So what limits need to be set? Well, it might be helpful to remember the acronym TO BE SAFE.

Time

The best place to start is to set limits on the amount of time children spend with technology. Your kids will be most likely to stick to the limits you set if you stick to them too. Adults can just as easily find themselves sucked into the online world when the five minutes that was planned for checking emails after work turn into several hours of messages back and forth between friends.

Experts who study the effects of technology on children, youth, and young adults generally recommend no more than two hours of non-academic screen time per day. There’s no asterisk there that says “unless you’re quarantined at home.” This can be tricky, too, because as some kids continue or even finish out the school year online, kids may have all sorts of reasons to be online—and all sorts of ways to sneak in some “non-academic screen time” under the guise of classwork. This means you need to:

Observe

You can’t expect to know how your children are using their “techno time” unless you are observing how and when they’re engaged. While there are many ways to monitor usage, the most effective way tends to be via programs that encourage parents to talk with their kids about safety concerns, be open about the fact that they’ll be monitoring usage and plan times to check in with one another about how things are going. Based on what you observe, you might want to establish some:

Boundaries

Children need and want good boundaries in their lives in order to thrive and grow.

I know, they protest at just about every attempt you make to set a limit. That’s normal. It’s your child’s way of testing you to see just how much you care and what you’re willing to do to protect her. So chat with your child about your concerns and tie some reasonable limits to those concerns. Put some boundaries around:

  • where devices may be used.
  • when devices should be on and off.
  • which social media platforms and web environments may be used.

For example, to prevent family members sneaking off to be alone with their computers and smartphones, make it a family rule to locate all computers in a common area in your home such as a family room. Or, to prevent hearing that familiar buzz or distinctive “ping” that signals text messages coming from your son’s bedroom all night long, designate a certain time for phones to be turned off and put all of them in a central location, away from all bedrooms. Learn about the social media platforms and web environments that are most likely to encourage learning and good social engagement and use white lists or black lists to set some parameters.

And while you are enforcing those boundaries, pay close attention to your kids’ reactions to screen time. In other words, notice their:

Emotions

After your children disengage from technology as the day wears on, do you notice that certain emotions such as anger and sadness seem to linger? If so, tell them what you’ve noticed and ask them if they can explain why there seems to be a connection between technology use and their changing emotions.

It is not unusual for boys to be more aggressive after playing games online and engaging in social media, while girls will often show more signs of depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with their lives. If these changes in emotion when they’re plugged in compared to when they’re not begin to look like a pattern, you’ll need to limit the time on technology and encourage more direct involvement with family and friends, as well as healthy physical exercise.

Rigorous activities provide a good outlet for intense emotions and encourage good self-care along with:

Sleep

If you haven’t heard, we have a generation of sleep-deprived youth, primarily because of how hard it is for them to walk away from technology. There is a new phenomenon known as “fear of missing out” or FOMO, which basically refers to anxiety about not being in the social media or other online “loop” while one is sleeping.

Add to that the fact that the lights and colors on screens interfere with normal sleep patterns, and the youth of today have a difficult time getting to sleep and staying asleep. This wouldn’t be so bad if it just meant that we noticed a lot of yawning in our kids. But sleep deprivation, especially over time, can contribute to serious health problems and in extreme cases, psychotic episodes.

Sleep is essential to optimum physical, social, and emotional health. So, hold firm to limits on screen time, encourage your children to turn off the screens at least two hours before bedtime and help them get into sleep routines that encourage at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Of course all of these suggestions make sense only when considered in the context of a child’s:

Age 

In general, the younger a child is, the more limits you need to put on technology use and the hope is that as the child gets older, he or she will begin to internalize those limits and learn self-discipline. If so, growing kids should be rewarded with:

Freedoms Earned

Give some new freedom for respecting the boundaries around technology you’ve put into place to protect your kids and encourage their healthy development. When you reward a son or daughter for being disciplined consumers of technology, this motivates their siblings and friends to comply so they can have some of the same freedoms extended to them.

You can expect some pushback from your children when you attempt to set limits on technology and establish healthy self-care practices for your family. But don’t let that discourage you. You’ll be contributing to their overall health and teaching them some good boundaries they can pass on to their kids someday.

7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment

Good parents aren’t perfect. There’s no formula to follow, but there are ways you can grow every day. Focus on the Family’s 7 Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment gives parents an honest look at their unique strengths, plus some areas that could use a little help.

What To Do Instead

One of the best strategies to keep your children’s screen time down might be to give them other alternative activities. We talked about several on a recent episode of the Plugged In Show (Episode 18: The Coronavirus and Home-Bound Entertainment). Suggestions included:

Reading a Book.

This is a great way to bond with your children and encourage a love of reading. Pick something you’ll both enjoy. The Chronicles of Narnia books are wonderful books to read aloud, but stories with lots of fun sounds— Carl Sandburg’s The Rutabaga Stories or Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, for instance—are made for communal reading.

Playing a Game.

Board games have come a long way since Monopoly. They can be a wonderful way to spend time with your children and even learn something about each other.

Taking a Walk.

Be safe, of course. Practice social distancing where appropriate. But by all means, allow some time to get you and your kids out into the fresh air. Spending a little time listening to the birds and the wind, seeing the trees start to bloom, and the grass start to turn green can be a strong stabilizer in these stressful times—and a subtle reminder that God is good and in control.

Additional Resources

Looking for more? Check out Focus on the Family’s list of “50 Games and Activities to Do With Your Kids.”

Focus on the Family has plenty of additional resources, including how to tackle the subject of the coronavirus with your children.

Plugged In’s vice president, Danny Huerta, has just filmed this video, “7 Ways to Parent Effectively During the Coronavirus Outbreak.”

There’s lots of talk about the virus’ potential effects that could be pretty scary for little hearts. To help you navigate those conversations, check out our article “Talking With Kids About the Coronavirus.”

For those who are working at home, our fittingly-named article “Staying Sane While Working From Home With Kids” offers some concrete counsel for, well, staying sane right now.

One positive change that families are likely experiencing is the ability to eat meals together. That’s a good thing, of course. But we might also feel as if we’re running out of conversation ideas after being cooped up with each other for a long stretch. If so, “50 Questions to Ask Your Kids at the Dinner Table” can be a great conversation catalyst for our coronavirus convocation.

And if your kids are really looking for just some good, old-fashioned entertainment, Focus on the Family’s audio program Adventures in Odyssey has been warming the hearts of generations of fans. To learn more about how you can listen, go to whitsend.org, where you’ll find a link to a free four-week trial to our Odyssey Adventure Club. Oh, and you may not have known this, but Plugged In’s Bob Hoose has been working with Odyssey even longer than he’s been a part of our team, producing and directing hundreds of fantastic episodes of this beloved program.

What To Do If Your Screen-Time Plan Falters

We all know that setting boundaries on screen-time use is hugely important for the sake of our kids’ mental, emotional and spiritual health, even and especially in this season of the coronavirus.

But if we’re being honest as parents, sometimes our grip slips a bit. We implement new habits, we make changes, we see progress with regard to how we’re spending time—or not spending time—with screens. But sometimes, especially now, when screens are oh-so appealing (and, let’s face it, parental nerves may be ever-so frayed), it’s so easy, so tempting and, in some cases, perhaps inevitable that we let our vigilance down. Our kids stumble back into old habits. Suddenly, it can seem like our family’s screen-time usage is spinning out of control again.

In those moments, it can be tempting to throw in the towel, to feel like the hard work of setting limits and making healthy changes is just too unrealistic.

But the fact is, setting limits is hard—in any area of our lives. Anyone who’s ever tried to stick to a diet or a budget knows that redirecting those old ways is anything but easy. And I’d suggest that the same is true when it comes to making changes with regard to our family’s screen-time usage.

So when things spin out of control, it’s time for a screen-time reset. How do we do that? And how do we move toward making changes stick?

Look for a Natural Reset Point

It’s not impossible to make changes right in the middle of your normal schedule. Like, say, starting this Wednesday morning. But in my family’s experience, it’s a bit easier to do that when there’s a natural reset point.

So if things are starting to feel a bit frazzled, you can get out your calendar right now and ask, “What’s the next best spot for our family to reset our media habits?”

Rejecting All-or-Nothing Perfectionism

Some of us have what I’d describe as “all or nothing” personalities. When we make changes in our lives, we go all in—no matter how hard or extreme. But the flip side is often not good: When “all in” starts to erode, to feel too difficult, we can collapse back to our old ways.

So what does that look like? Instead of perfectionism, it means taking a realistic attitude toward making changes in our lives—such as new boundaries for screen time in our families. The goal isn’t absolute perfection. The goal is movement toward what is healthy and good for us. Sometimes we blow it—just like with a diet, or a budget. We don’t quit, but we do reset, regroup and try again.

Perfectionism is a heavy burden for everyone involved, both parents and children. In Adam Holz’s 2014 Plugged In Blog entry “Rebooting Your Family’s Media Habits,” he wrote:

“Our family’s goal isn’t perfection when it comes to media and technology. Rather, our goal is to be engaged and aware of our habits, and to periodically reset them when discipline wanes (because we’re tired or sick or had a bad day … or week), as it naturally tends to do.

It can feel like a losing battle sometimes—a battle that gets even tougher as kids move into their teen years. That said, I believe that if we stay engaged relationally, keep setting healthy limits and keep hitting the reset button when we drift outside those boundaries, it gives our kids a model for relating to others and technology.”

Replacement Theory

It’s hard to eliminate anything we like without a concrete plan for replacing it with something that offers a different kind of satisfaction.

For parents, resetting our kids’ screen-time limits demands something more than just a parental edict that they’re not going to do “X” anymore. When we remove something from our children’s lives that they enjoy and are used to doing, it’s going to create a vacuum that we have a responsibility to help them fill. That requires planning and intentionality. Refer back to the second section of this guide for some possible tips on what could fill that space, or be creative and make your own.

For our family, we’ve tried to find things that we like to do together. There are several games that all of us enjoy (or, well, most of us), as well as certain shared activities. So if I say, “It’s time to get off your Switch,” that instruction is much easier for my son to take if I have a replacement activity in mind: “So let’s go play guitar together,” for instance. My son and I enjoy making music with each other, whereas my wife and daughters are more likely to enjoy doing puzzles, drawings, and various “crafty” things together. Increasingly, they’re cooking together, too, which my daughters absolutely love.

We also sometimes have contests, especially on breaks. Who can read the most pages and/or books over a weekend? Or, let’s have a drawing contest where each family member comes up with a category to sketch out.

Staying Engaged

Your family’s replacement strategies may look very different than our family’s. But the point is, we’re not just dropping screen-time regulations on our kids and expecting them to naturally know what to do with the empty space we’ve just created. Instead, we’re actively and intentionally engaged as parents, brainstorming and modeling non-screen-related activities. And the more non-screen fun you have, the better memories you’ll create. In truth, as scary as the coronavirus can be for many of us, it can be seen as an opportunity to create new, special moments with your children—moments forged over a book or board game, moments they’ll treasure forever. Because in the end, those familial, face-to-face experiences you have with your children are way more memorable than a binge-worthy show.

© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 

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Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007. He loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. That’s why he wrote the book God on the Streets of Gotham. In addition, Paul has written several other books, including his newest, Burning Bush 2.0. When Paul’s not reviewing TV shows and movies for Plugged In, he hikes with his …

Adam Holz
Adam Holz

Adam R. Holz is the happy director of the Plugged In team at Focus on the Family.

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