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"Normal" Screen Time Rules for Kids No Longer Apply — Now What?

I received the email at 4:00 p.m. on a Thursday telling me my 5-year-old’s preschool was closing on Monday, reopening date unknown. Almost every parent in the country saw a message like this in the last few weeks, and now we’re all struggling with anxiety and disbelief as we process this new reality. I know I’m one of the lucky ones: we don’t rely on school lunches to keep our kids fed, and my job enables me to work from home. Recognizing this privilege, my husband and I are taking deep breaths, and trying to figure out how we’re going to manage our kids’ emotional and educational needs for the next month (or longer?) while our employers also expect us to work full-time.

One thing is clear: We will have to develop new routines, especially when it comes to our kids’ screen time. Usually, I try to follow American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which encourage parents to limit children’s screen time to two hours per day. But experts agree that as we juggle work responsibilities and kids at home, these guidelines may no longer apply. Instead, we need to think about screen time in a new context. Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan who was a lead author of the 2016 guidelines for young children, says, “Instead of worrying about ‘screen time,’ we need to think about HOW our families are using technology to meet our human needs and values right now.”

“Most of us will probably be letting our kids use more technology while we try to handle the rapidly-changing things in our life,” says Radesky. But she encourages parents to let go of anxiety or guilt about this increased screen time. Having structure to the day and limits is still important so that behaviors that help us cope — such as sleep, physical activity, play, and family conversations — are not displaced. Radesky suggests asking ourselves, “Are we using media to meet our family’s goals during a stressful time, to connect with loved ones and friends, or offer support for struggling businesses?” And she urges parents to recognize when they need a break from being hyper-connected to news or stress-inducing content.

While we increase screen time for our kids, experts agree it’s still important to integrate screen time thoughtfully and to have a plan for its deployment. Kids rely on routines, and setting up schedules and boundaries helps them feel safe and secure. Dr. Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in a Digital Age, suggests making a visual schedule for young kids, as well as agreeing on certain non-negotiable rules like “no screens before breakfast” or “no devices in the kids’ bedrooms.” You can ask your kids for input on these routines to try and mimic some aspects of what they’re used to at daycare or school.

Remember that your child learns a lot by observing characters on the screen, so look for shows that model good behavior and problem-solving skills.

In my family, we’re flipping some routines entirely. Media is usually an after-school activity, but if kids will be using it more during our workday hours (whether using the school assignments sent from their teachers or getting extra time to play games), we’re going to take a device break in the evening. We’ve already talked to our kids about doing fun things to relax together after dinner: playing card or board games, reading books out loud, or going for a walk outside together. I think we will all need these screen breaks to decompress and play together.

When my kids do use media, I’m doing my best to be intentional about what my kids watch or play. “Challenge yourself to be choosy when you’re making a choice to have your child use media,” advises Radesky. Do you want your child to learn science or math skills? Are you trying to give him a little down time? Do you want to help her get some energy out?

There is a wide range of choices available to parents, from shows that teach kids about science while modeling cooperation and teamwork, like The Octonauts, to digital games that encourage movement, like Pinkalicious’ PinkaDance. Remember that your child learns a lot by observing characters on the screen, so look for shows that model good behavior and problem-solving skills. If you need new ideas, Common Sense Media is a great source for age-appropriate ratings and educational information. Your child’s teacher, daycare provider or librarian is also likely to have some great recommendations.

It’s also helpful to match your kids’ media consumption to your own needs. For decades, experts have promoted “co-viewing” — watching media alongside your child so that you can use it to spark conversations and explore new ideas. But as we all scramble to keep our kids occupied, we can adapt this model to reinforce kids’ learning and keep them safe.

Heitner recommends that if you’re trying to work from home, it’s best to let your kids watch full-length episodes of shows or movies, instead of services like YouTube or TikTok, which can lead your child into content that is inappropriate for their age group. With shows and movies, you know how long they will last, which can help you stick to your media plan and gives you a set block of your own time. Heitner also suggests choosing shows that you are already familiar with for this kind of unsupervised viewing. Even if you haven’t seen a particular episode, since you know the characters or can observe a little of what your child is doing on screen, you can be ready to ask questions at break or meal times like, “What animal did the Kratt brothers meet today?” or “How did Peg solve her big problem?”

These questions may seem simple, but they can have a profound effect on learning. As Radesky explains, young children “can learn facts such as letters, vocabulary, and math concepts from the preschool years and older” just by watching a show. However, “they need adults to help them connect these facts to larger concepts, contextualize their learning and apply it to the world around them.” Asking, “Wow, what would you do if that happened to you?,” can help your child process the lessons presented in the show.

You can also ask your child what they liked or didn’t like, and see if you can have a discussion about it. In addition to letting your child practice good communication skills, you are helping them be critical thinkers about what they see on the screens around them. This also creates a great family habit: Media is something to talk about and can spark interesting conversations.

When it comes to screen time, I’m going to follow Heitner’s lead and remind myself that because this pandemic is a profound disruption, parents need to be as kind to themselves as possible.

Both Radesky and Heitner agree that we should embrace the creative, fun possibilities offered by screens and technology. Radesky suggests asking young children “to take some time-lapse videos and then show them all to you.” Older children can create a mini movie about your family pet or print out photos to make a collage. If your kids have a console gaming system, this might be a great time for the whole family to play together. For more family fun and in a moment when you’re controlling the screen, Heitner recommends turning to YouTube for how-to videos, like how to make slime or cook grilled cheese sandwiches. And don’t discount virtual chats with family and friends. Heitner observes that in addition to checking in on grandparents via video chat, asking grandparents to read a book on video chat or virtually play a game with their grandchildren can be an important way to maintain connections for everyone while also keeping kids occupied.

As we navigate this time, I know that we will have to be flexible; some of our new routines and plans will need to change and adapt as we adjust to the new normal. When it comes to screen time, I’m going to follow Heitner’s lead and remind myself that because this pandemic is a profound disruption, parents need to be as kind to themselves as possible. And as I consider how to be more intentional about my kids’ media, I’m also going to do the same for myself, to make sure I’m choosing media that supports my own mental health.

While working on this article, I took a break to try out the PinkAmazing Family Game with my two boys. When we were all doubled over laughing while trying to act out “a unicorn playing baseball,” I realized that this media choice sparked exactly what my family needed right now: a chance to laugh and play together. Tonight, I think an old-fashioned game of charades is in order.

Sara DeWitt is vice president of PBS KIDS Digital.