Pandemic screen time is off the charts—but experts say parents don't need to worry

Pandemic screen time is off the charts—but experts say parents don't need to worry

If you've been handing over the iPad a lot more than usual throughout the pandemic and feel a pang of guilt each time, our panel of experts has some pretty good news for you.

Throughout my 13 years as a parent, the amount of time my three kids have spent on screens has ebbed and flowed with the chaos and stress going on at home. There were the months when, after her baby brother was born, our three-year-old would wake up at 5:30 a.m., climb into our bed and start her morning with a healthy dose of The Big Comfy Couch and whatever else was on at that ungodly hour. Then there was the time after our third child was born and we’d just moved into a new house. The two-year-old sat, surrounded by boxes, sucking his milk bottle, tiny hand tucked into his diaper, watching Monsters Inc. for days.

I look back on these chapters as our “seasons of screens,” where there was just too much going on in our lives to be fully imaginative and engaged when it came to parenting. When we really just needed to park them somewhere and know they were happy and safe. When there really wasn’t another choice.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic and parents everywhere have been in a universal, seemingly never-ending “season of screens.” More than a year after the initial shock of school and daycare closures, cancelled extracurriculars and a ban on family visits, our kids are still exposed to way more screens than they were pre-pandemic because, well, we’re still living through it.

I haven’t been feeling great about my kids’ pandemic screen time, and yet I know it’s unrealistic for me to uphold the pre-pandemic rules I used to have in place. So I assembled a team of experts to find out exactly what we parents need to worry about and what we can let go. Here’s what I learned.

Kids get so zoned in on screens because the people who create apps and television shows for kids are specifically designing them in a way that grabs their attention. “They change constantly and they provide what they call variable rewards to keep us hooked,” explains Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, president of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, a non-profit organization that studies the impact of tech on children. “For little kids, screens are full of stimuli—they’re noisy, they’re colourful, they’re constantly changing and they involve multiple senses at the same time.” Kids have always loved TV, but with so many more content options and devices to watch or play on, they are less likely to get bored and walk away on their own.

Sukhpreet Tamana, a clinical child psychologist and researcher in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University who has studied screen time in preschoolers, says three-, four- and five-year-olds are especially susceptible to the allure of a device. “They’re still trying to develop that delayed gratification and that ability to regulate their emotions,” she explains. “On devices, everything is happening fast and there’s no pause between what’s happening for you and what’s happening on the screen.” Compare this to, say, a playground, where a kid’s experience and enjoyment is contingent on the actions of other kids.

Pre-pandemic, researchers looked at screen use through what’s called the displacement hypothesis. “The idea is that any time spent on a technology is time that is displacing something better in a child’s life,” says digital technologies researcher Amy Orben from the University of Cambridge in England. But the theory stopped making sense during the pandemic, she says. “This displacement idea doesn’t really work anymore, because we cannot just go outside, we cannot go to an after-school class. The screen becomes a vehicle for all these positive actions.” So if you’re adding up the amount of time your kid is on a screen, experts say not to include video calls with family or any education-related screen time. Educational apps, interactive videos where kids are dancing or singing along, and watching a movie as a family are also all more positive uses of screens compared to, for example, a kid sitting on their own, headphones on, watching poorly produced YouTube videos chosen by an algorithm.

Video games can also be a positive use of screens if they are playing online with friends, says Michelle Ponti, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Digital Health Task Force and a paediatrician in London, Ont. “That’s how they’re staying connected.” Games that get kids off the couch and moving around are positive too, she says.

You can also encourage older kids to do something useful on their devices, like looking up videos for an upcoming school project, comparing styles of bikes if they need a new one or researching potential destinations for a post-pandemic family vacation.

Ponti cautions that there are no benefits to kids under two using screens, so screen time should be as limited as possible, although video calls with family members are perfectly fine.

Some research shows a possible link between excessive screen use and things like poor sleep and childhood obesity, although a causal relationship has not been proven, says Hurst-Della Pietra.

Regardless, experts encourage concerned parents to simply take a good look at what’s actually going on in their homes. “Screens don’t cause invisible damage to children,” says Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time. So if you’re trying to spot signs that your kid might be overdoing it, she says, “you’re looking for impairment in basic functions, like they’re not really sleeping well or they’re not interested in stopping to eat. Or they’re not showing a lot of interest in relating to their family members because they want to be involved in what’s happening on the screen.” Hurst-Della Pietra says to also watch for an increase in apathy, emotional outbursts and anxiety, plus missed milestones in physical, emotional and language development.

Tamana, whose 2019 research found an association between increased screen time and attention problems in preschoolers, says her study also discovered things that protected kids against these negative effects, such as a good-quality sleep and taking part in structured activities throughout the day.

Ponti, for one, has no problem with this. “It’s a very powerful currency,” she says. So if you know your kid is going to be on their screens anyway but you want them to do some chores, too, it’s completely reasonable to say they first need to clean their room, help put the groceries away or get their schoolwork done. “The caveat is, if a child starts whining and complaining about the chores and the parent gives in because they’re sick of it and gives them the screen, then they just rewarded that negative behaviour,” says Ponti. For some kids, sticker charts work well so they can visually track what they are earning.

A lot of parents have found themselves on their phones more than ever during the pandemic, as a way to stay in touch with the outside world (or, in some cases, as an attempt to avoid the chaos of the inside world!). But let’s be honest: Most of us were pretty attached to our phones before COVID, too.

Obviously, it’s a wise idea to try to model good screen habits when your kids are around—but experts say that doesn’t necessarily mean hiding your phone use from your kids or feeling guilty about the time you’re spending on your device.

Instead, make sure they see you taking breaks from your phone when you’re directly interacting with them, and for things like meals and outdoor exercise. And it’s important that your kid doesn’t see your device as a barrier to communicating with you. “Our interactions with our kids help them learn and grow and manage their emotions,” says Kamenetz.

Ponti specifically recommends putting your device completely away for at least 10 minutes when your kids get home from school or daycare so you can reconnect with them uninterrupted. Tamana suggests everyone in the family puts their devices away at dinnertime, and then again at bedtime. “Parents can hop back on once the kids are asleep.”

Thanks to the unequalled instantaneous gratification kids get from screens, it might be tough to entice your kids away from them once it’s possible to socialize with other households or enrol in regular activities again. “Think about it like how we transition our kids from holidays back to routine,” Tamana suggests, and take it slow and gradually.

Kamenetz notes that parenting and family life are always evolving. “Whether or not there’s a pandemic, you’re going to have different rules six months from now than you do today and your child will discover new interests and they’ll have different friends,” she says. At the same time, some habits kids have picked up this past year will continue post-pandemic—and they might not all be negative, like using devices to call friends or family members. “I think we’ll see school districts responding as well, perhaps with more flexibility to accommodate kids who may have discovered while they’ve been home and learning from home that there are some advantages to that.”

Experts are divided on how concerned we should be about the amount of time kids are spending on screens, and it’s too soon to be sure one way or the other. It can be reassuring, though, to look at it from a historical perspective. “In the 1940s, there were many scientific papers saying that the use of the radio might be an addictive substance for children, and that radio and movie dramas might really be changing their body physiology and changing their attention,” says Orben. Today, of course, we’d be delighted if our kids were entertained by a simple radio drama. In the end, we need to recognize that these are challenging times. In some cases, when the chaos is overwhelming and you’re at a breaking point, parking your kid in front of a device might actually be the best thing for them. Take it from Tamana: “If it’s a choice between the parent feeling really stressed and overwhelmed and not being emotionally available versus allowing the kid to use their screens while the parent is trying to keep things together, it’s probably better to give the kid their device.”