A child psychiatrist's tips for digital parenting during COVID

A child psychiatrist's tips for digital parenting during COVID

Recently, I was part of a virtual panel discussing ways to help kids and teens manage their digital technology use. The audience, parents from around the world, felt blind-sided about how all of this extra time at home has led to significant increases in screen use for most people.

On top of everything else, this pandemic has dumped on our personal and professional lives as physicians, many of us are also struggling with how to manage our kids’ digital lives on screen.

For the majority of us, our kids’ and teens’ screen use has increased, often exceeding amounts that we feel comfortable with. A recent study suggests that the healthy range of screen use for tweens and teens is around 2 to 3 hours each day.

So, the mom/physician coach/child psychiatrist in me wants to share some tips with you. Maybe you’ve already figured this out, in which case, please share your ideas. However, if the fight over screens is just one more battle you have not wanted to wage, I hope these tips help. We are not aiming for perfection here. Just think of these tips as a launching pad to learning what works best for your family.

Remember, communication is key. When trying to set up structure around screen use in your home, make it a family effort. Schedule a family tech talk when everyone has time to discuss things calmly. While parents do have veto power, make sure every person has a voice.

1. Emotional well-being. If you get nothing else from this post, get this, pay close attention to your and your child’s well-being. These changes in our lives, who we interact with, how we interact, restrictions in our movements in the community, are not benign. They have a significant impact on our and our kid’s mental well-being. In addition, screen use has been linked to anxiety and depression. Notice your kids’ mood or behavior and get help if you think your child needs additional care and support.

2. Routine. This doesn’t have to be a rigidly planned schedule. Have your kids wake up, get dressed, eat, and go to bed around the same time each day. Build-in regular time for schoolwork and fun activities and make sure they’re getting enough sleep. Kids 6 to 18 years old should be getting around 8 to 11 hours, depending on their age. In addition to formal learning, school days create daily routine and structure. The loss of this structure and routine can be unsettling.

3. Outside time. Encourage your kids to leave their devices indoor and go outside. Studies show that time in nature can be a free, easily accessible remedy to stress, mood problems and supports well-being. Aim for 30 minutes daily weather permitting.

4. Family time. Eat, play a game, cook, or take a walk together. This time together can strengthen relationships.

5. Non-tech hobbies. Let your kids bake or make a meal for the family. Work on a puzzle or Lego if you have younger kids. They’ll learn that they won’t self-destruct if they go for an hour without checking their notifications.

It is not by accident that my top five tips have nothing to do with the physical device. Part of managing screens is bringing into focus the parts of our lives that take place off of our screens. Enhancing our kids’ off-screen lives eases some of the burdens of getting them off of their devices.

6. Social connection. Social interactions are an important part of development at every stage. As our kids grow into tweens and teens, interacting with peers helps kids set patterns for building healthy adult relationships. When our kids can’t see their peers in person, video calls, or old-fashioned can fill this need.

7. Tech-free zones. For example, make the dinner table device free. Dinner tables are opportunities to slow down, connect, and detach digitally. So everyone, adults included, should put their devices out of sight.

8. Tech-free times. Help your kids set up tech-free times during their day to give their brains a break. I encourage all of the families that I work with to get the screens out of the room at night-time. Many teens and some tweens engage in “vamping.” This is when they are using their devices in the middle of the night, displacing valuable sleep time.

9. Discourage multitasking. Recent research has clarified that our brains don’t truly multitask; we task in sequence. This matters if your kids are doing schoolwork with several tabs open on their laptop screen while they are checking notifications on their phone. Encourage them to close unnecessary tabs and to put their phones away when they are doing schoolwork.

10. Set limits. Ultimately, you get to decide how your kids use their devices. Yes, they can figure out ways to get around rules, but this is true with all of parenting. What better place to flex your parenting muscles?

Don’t beat yourself up if you find that you fall short of all of the suggestions. If perfection was expected, then I would be the wrong one writing this post. We are all just trying to do our best to manage during such strange times. Every little step helps and can support better family cohesion and functioning overall.

Tracy Asamoah is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and can be reached at Tracy Asamoah Coaching.