For many parents, concern over kids being glued to screens is not a new phenomenon. However, with the pandemic causing a 500% spike of digital media usage amongst younger generations, the issue has become a new kind of monster. Our current reality is forcing families to rethink screen time limits and come up with solutions that take into account both the harmful effects of excessive digital media use and the need for kids to engage in online school and socialization. The pandemic has had a detrimental impact on many kids, and an unhealthy dependence on technology could be a long-lasting side effect of a full year away from school and friends.
Parents need to help children navigate these unprecedented times and try to minimize the risk children face of developing poor habits and technology addictions. One of the ways to protect kids in a time where the world has gone virtual, is to understand how much screen time is too much and learn how you can set limits without disturbing remote learning or causing greater distress and isolation for your child.
How Much Is Too Much Screen Time
It might be the case that your child complains to you that their friend is allowed more time on their digital devices than they are. This is normal given that there is ambiguity on how much screen time is excessive. According to paediatricians, spending more than two hours on screens can begin to affect the health of children, but with virtual school alone demanding children spend 4-6 hours in front of a computer, it is an impossible standard to meet.
So, what should the new standards be?
Well, as suggested by Reid Health, this number has to be tailored to your child based on their virtual school timetable, sleeping schedule and their physical activity. Children should aim to have at least one hour of physical activity and 8-12 hours of sleep depending on age. Likewise, parents should take into account that recreational screen time is also healthy for children as it enables them to connect with distant family and friends, which can prevent burn out in time of social distancing. Thus, for parents looking to set screen time limits, they must asses multiple factors and ask:
- Is recreational screen time taking away from my child’s sleep?
- Are my child’s activities online aiding or harming their cognitive development and critical thinking skills?
- Is my child getting sufficient physical activity or is their screen time leading them to be sedentary?
- Is my child using technology in a way that connects or distances them from family and household values?
The answers to these questions should serve as a guide for what screen time limits you should set in your home that protect the overall wellbeing of your children.
Setting Boundaries and Making Family Time Sacred
To the best of your ability, make family time feel sacred. Plan a topic or a great story to tell – something funny or inspirational – that’s just a little outside of their experience. Or ask the kids to do the same, one of you each night. Or find a book that you can each read from at dinner every night. When you’re ready, make a no devices, no interruptions rule.
When it comes to setting boundaries, refrain from the mindset of restriction and focus more on promoting balance and connection. This approach will allow your children to be more open to the idea of limiting their screen time. One effective way to promote balance is to talk to your kids about why spending time offline is healthy and necessary, and giving them a chance to reflect on how they feel when they are on and offline. These open and honest conversations allow you to empathize with your child’s struggle and be there for them in the thick of it.
When setting boundaries, parents should always keep in mind what habit they are trying to promote. For example, if children are not allowed to have screens at the dinner table, parents should vocalise why this is a rule. They can explain to their kids that by not having screens at the dinner table they are practising the habit of being more present, spending better quality time with their family and adopting good table manners.
Of course, to set boundaries effectively parents should keep in mind both consistency and example. For children to benefit from the boundaries set, your family must stick to the rules put in place. This can be done by setting up screen time plans and encouraging fun rewards for your family when they stay consistent. By encouraging the whole family to stick by screen time rules, it not only makes it a family activity but it also allows you to lead by example. Remember that kids are watching what you do more than what you say, so make sure you are practising what you preach!
Encouraging your child to lead a more “other-centered” life
There are plenty of advantages that come along with encouraging children to disconnect frequently, and one of them is the wonderful gift of time. Limiting time online allows kids to redirect their attention to healthy activities that they might be missing out on. These activities might include discovering a musical talent, exploring an individual sport, reading different genres of books, or simply spending more time connecting with the people around them.
As a parent, you can use this gift of extra time to connect more deeply with your child and teach them the joy of being with and caring for others. Now is the perfect opportunity to invite your children into your world, pass on family traditions and teach them the value of offline, genuine communication and connection. In an age appropriate way, it’s the perfect time to encourage kids to be more reflective, to ask every day, what can I be grateful for today? It’s also a time to reach out more to others, to ask – with the gifts that have been given to me, who can I help and what am I needed for? Make it an other-centered life, rather than a me-centered life and this will be an investment in your child’s future generosity, dignity and happiness.
Make sure to laugh together and look in each other’s eyes daily. By encouraging fun and purposeful activities, offline life starts to get much richer and the ties of family much stronger.
Seeing children spend their youth stuck indoors, absorbed by screens can be a saddening image. However, we cannot forget that the exponential spike in screen time is heavily due to the world facing a major crisis. Don’t be so hard on yourself and your kids for this change of routine. Instead, remind your kids that this is temporary and help them use this time intentionally to practice healthy habits with technology.
More importantly, use this time as a family to create deeper connections and shared experiences. With realistic and balanced expectations, parents can learn to reap the benefits of a remote world while encouraging children to live a life of greater awareness, gratitude, kindness and purpose.
Hinda Leah Sharfstein, Executive Director at Bais Chana Women International, a Jewish nonprofit providing education and advice to women of all ages.