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1/26/21blog post

screen time and the pandemic

child sitting on couch and watching tvWhen the pandemic began nearly a year ago, parents, faced with juggling work and caring for their children at the same time, turned to TVs and tablets to keep their kiddos occupied and connected with others. Now, months later, kids are alternating between in-person and virtual learning with screen time still playing a major role in their day-to-day life.

While some screen time can be beneficial, there are some risks associated with too much time spent watching movies, playing video games or tinkering with tablets. Zach Woessner, PsyD, pediatric psychologist with Dayton Children’s, offers guidance for managing your kids’ screen time and offering alternative activities as we consider life post-pandemic. 

What are the benefits of screen time, especially during the pandemic?
Throughout the last year, connection and social engagement with others have been extremely helpful with the use of screen time, specifically social media sites, video games and Zoom calls. During a time when it has been so difficult to physically connect with others, the use of screens has been pivotal and most helpful in allowing family and friends to stay connected. The pandemic has also seemed to have provided a bit of a shift back to the importance of family, especially extended family and thus, screens and technology have been paramount in enabling social connections. Screens can also improve the way we learn, make us more efficient and effective, and allow us to explore and have new experiences.

Why is it so difficult to get kids off of their screens?
I definitely see kids and parents struggling with limit setting and unsure how much is too much. What I think is going on is that screen time with games and social media sites are so reinforcing in terms of obtaining immediate satisfaction and fun. The more one obtains this type of immediate reinforcement, the more likely they are to struggle to engage in activities that are inherently, not as reinforcing, especially not immediately reinforcing, like chores, some school work, etc. Therefore, the naturally reinforcing properties of screens are likely making it much more difficult for kids to put their screens down.

What are the health risks associated with too much screen time?
Increased screen time typically leads to increased sedentary activity and all the consequences that can be associated with decreased activity, like weight gain or depressed mood. Increased screen time also seems to negatively impact sleep schedules, which typically causes decreased sleep or irregular sleep schedules. Getting insufficient sleep has many well documented health concerns, including weight gain, difficulty focusing/concentrating, impaired immune functioning, learning concerns, fatigue, and negative mood. However, according to a UNICEF report:

“While a small group of children will inevitably encounter adverse experiences when they use digital technology, this is not directly related to the time they spend online. Rather, when considering such experiences, more attention should be paid to what children do online, the content they encounter, and their life environment and support networks in general. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of screen time seems to be optimal for children.”

What are some ways that parents can wean kids off of screen time once we return to “normal?”
Setting limits, especially with screens, is always difficult for parents, but it may be increasingly difficult when things return to normal. So, parents must provide some alternatives to screen time to help make the transition away from screens easier. Therefore, as we "return to normal," parents will need to identify, explore, and get their kids involved in alternative and engaging activities. Some could be traditional activities like a return to sports teams, clubs, boy scouts, girl scouts, etc. A return to nature could also be helpful, so activities like family trips to state parks, fishing, camping, canoeing and being active outdoors enables time away from screens, while having fun and exploring something new.

Using apps that have timers can also help parent's set appropriate limits and use a gradual approach to wean them off of screens. Setting limits in terms of only using screens at certain times, in certain settings, or in certain contexts are also great ways to decrease screen usage. As always, it is important to establish rules, set consequences, and then follow through.

And, as the pandemic restrictions lift, it is likely that we will initially see a reduction in use of screens as things "open back up" and we are able to do more things out in public. However, I suspect that the pandemic has created a new norm in terms of an overall increase in the use of screens by all. Thus, the overall increase in average screen time usage is likely to stay. Finally, it is important to note that we may not know all the effects, both positive and/or negative, of this increased screen time for years to come. 

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Zachary Woessner, PsyD.

psychology, sleep medicine
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