As parents juggle a new double duty of working from home and caring for children no longer in school or daycare, the use of screen time may become more of an issue in some households.
The lure of a phone, television, video game, computer or tablet is already tempting for most kids and teenagers. Factor in the at-home reality of the COVID-19 pandemic — few outdoor activity options and mom or dad trying to get work done — and screens can become more of a crutch.
Jennifer Shapka, a faculty of education associate professor at UBC, said it’s important for family members to have “compassion for how everyone is feeling” and not feel guilty as they adjust to these challenging times.
“Kids are going to survive this,” she said. “And even if they spend more time than usual on these devices, it’s not going to suddenly put them on a negative trajectory for your life.
“You’re not breaking your children.”
While the traditional school day has been upended, many school boards have rolled out online classroom setups. That has provided some semblance of regular learning structure for children — even if it’s on a screen.
The challenge for parents can lie in monitoring downtime throughout the day and also providing guidance for children while juggling work duties.
Shapka, who has expertise in adolescent and social development, said it’s too early for hard data on numbers in the COVID-19 era. But she predicted a rise in general usage.
“I think we’re going to see an uptick in kids relying on screen time, whether it’s to cope, whether it’s to mask another problem, whether it’s COVID- problems or other things they’re having in their life,” she said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends parents try to set limits on screen time, be a good example and do their best to create healthy habits.
However, that advice can be more difficult in a pandemic.
“I think we’re finding that in general, there’s just a moral panic parents have around screen time,” Shapka said. “So there’s this idea that if your child is on screens at all, it’s just a bad thing and it’s going to lead to depression and anxiety and they’re not going to be productive members of society.
“And we know that’s just not true. That’s just not how it’s going to play out,” he said.
“The screens are a symptom of something else going on. They’re not the problem.”
The Canadian Paediatric Society, citing 2018 research from digital and media literacy organization MediaSmarts, said parents reported 36 per cent of children aged 10-13 spent at least three hours daily using digital devices for non-schoolwork related reasons.
Sara Rodrigues, a Toronto-based senior policy and research analyst at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said there can be pros and cons to an increase in screen time.
“When screen time is of good quality and parents are engaged in deciding what their kids are exposed to and in monitoring their kids’ amount of activity, it can be educational,” she said. “There are loads of articles, books and educational videos online for a range of age groups. Kids can learn skills online, they can connect with friends or family or at a distance from them.
“They can also use different social media apps or websites to enhance their social ties with kids that they’re not able to play with right now.”
Social media risks
However, there are also risks associated with an uptick in screen usage, she added, particularly when it comes to social media.
“There’s always that steady production of new content, the possibility for what we call maladaptive or excessive use is significant,” Rodrigues said. “And this is especially concerning for children and youth because they’re digital natives.
Shapka said devoting time each day to non-screen pursuits can be helpful. She suggested board games, outdoor activities, chores, puzzles, and helping out with meals.
“I think a schedule is important,” she said. “Some kind of consistency that tries to put some balance in so it’s not all screens. But also (give kids) choice, and developmentally appropriate choice.”