Ever try to make a work call with children underfoot? No doubt, this is now a common experience. Many parents have their hands full as they try to work, manage household chores and be there for their children during the pandemic.
It's understandable that screens seem to be a necessary tool and distraction, especially when families spend more time at home. It's tempting to set kids up in front of the TV or send them off to play with an electronic device.
As challenging as this time is, experts say it's important for your child's physical, emotional and cognitive development not to completely disregard screen time guidelines. See why and ways to help find screen time balance when caring for kids during COVID‑19.
What are the risks of too much screen time?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of "high-quality programs" for children 2 to 5 years of age, and the World Health Organization recommends a one-hour limit for children ages 2 to 4. Too much electronic entertainment is risky because it deprives children of key learning opportunities.
"Children's brains are not designed to grow and develop from screens," explains Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "The brain is designed to develop from human interaction and exploration of the natural environment."
Dr. Holland cautions that too much screen time can affect children in various ways, such as:
- Hindering language, cognitive and social development: When children play video games or watch TV, they're not building their thinking skills through reading, practicing artistic abilities or problem-solving in the natural environment. Screen-based entertainment can interfere with verbal and nonverbal social skills which develop from talking and interacting with other children and adults.
- Negatively affecting the development of attention span: The flashing colors, lights and sounds of screens capture children's attention, with very little cognitive effort required. If children have access to a screen whenever they want, they will miss important opportunities to practice regulating emotions and sustaining attention and focus.
- Squashing the creativity that can result from boredom: "If children are never bored, they'll miss opportunities to use their creativity to solve problems," says Dr. Holland. "Those opportunities can help children develop a greater sense of self-sufficiency – realizing that they are capable of solving their own problems by coming up with ways to entertain themselves, rather than always relying on a parent."
Additionally, when children have access to screens, they may have access to content that is not appropriate for their age level, such as violent games or unsafe apps. It's important for parents to be aware of content being accessed by their children and to discuss internet safety guidelines.
Excessive screen time can have physical effects, too
Screen time can also affect a child's physical health by disrupting sleep habits or increasing risk for obesity. Physicians have also noted an increase in children with digestive conditions related to screen time and reduced physical activity. Parents may be surprised that too much screen time can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal pain, constipation or cramps.
Why? The mind-gut connection may be one reason. Your child's brain and GI tract are in constant communication with each other. It's called the brain-gut axis, certain cells in the body facilitate this connection.
When kids get angry or frustrated with their video games, their emotions can impact the digestive system. Additionally, children may become so involved in screen time that other factors take a toll on their digestive and physical health. While enjoying screen time, some kids:
- Don't drink enough water.
- Eat convenient, less nutritious snacks because they don't want to leave their screens.
- Ignore their body's natural cues and delay trips to the bathroom.
- Engage in less physical activity and have a more sedentary lifestyle.
- Neglect typical routines, including toilet time and medications.
Practical ways to manage your child's screen time
To minimize effects of too much screen time, try these tips:
1. Schedule dedicated play time with them – even if just for 15-20 minutes
Young children crave your attention, and this interaction promotes the development of their cognitive, language and social skills. It's understandable that parents have other responsibilities but try to schedule dedicated time with your child each day.
"During your play session, be fully engaged and present; model healthy screen behaviors by putting your own phone away. Allow your child to direct the play activities, and comment on what they're doing," suggests Dr. Holland. "You could even promise another play session later if they play independently while you work – just be sure to keep that promise if you make it."
2. Create a natural "playground" environment for young kids to explore
Set up a sand or water table in the backyard along with a bucket, shovel or kitchen strainer. Indoors, you could set up a sink, bucket or bathtub for this purpose, placing a mat or towels where water might splash.
3. Create an active space where kids can burn off energy
If needed, rearrange your furniture. Allow kids to use hula-hoops or jump ropes (if your floor can take it). You could also supply soft balls for tossing and pillows for building "forts." Look for more ideas for indoor and at-home exercises for kids.
4. Rotate in toys or encourage a new hobby
Keep a few toys hidden away and introduce a "new" toy when you need your child to play independently. The novelty can help capture their interest. Consider books, arts and crafts, puzzles and opportunities to learn a new skill, such as gardening or photography. Invite children to participate in cooking meals for the family, assigning them tasks and providing supervision according to their developmental abilities.
5. Give younger children an interactive book instead of an electronic tablet
A simple coloring book with crayons or washable markers works well. Picture books with basic sentences describing the pictures, such as those by Dr. Seuss, can be particularly helpful in developing early reading skills.
6. Remember that screens are a privilege for children, not a right
Require your child to help with household chores, help with siblings or spend time outdoors before using a screen each day. Creating a daily schedule and task list can help define expectations. Entertaining screen time (e.g., video games, TV, social media) should be limited to a set amount of time each day, not unlimited.
7. Let children be bored now and then
When children are required to find their own solutions to boredom, this becomes a chance for them to develop their imagination. "Remember, it's not your job as a parent to provide constant entertainment or programming for your child," says Dr. Holland. "In fact, this can be detrimental to their development."
8. Encourage healthy habits to avoid GI issues related to screen time
Parents should keep some practical guidelines in mind when allowing screen time to reduce digestive issues:
- Limit screen time to increments of 20-30 minutes.
- Provide healthy snack options like fruit, vegetables and high-fiber foods.
- Remind your child to drink plenty of water.
- Keep phones and screens out of the bedroom and eliminate screen time before bed.
- Remind children to use the bathroom.
- Encourage physical activity – it is vital to keep the bowels moving.
Give yourself a break
Parents are encouraged to remember that self-care is an important part of caring for children. "If you need silent time for a conference call or just for a needed break, it's okay to relax your screen time rules a little bit now and then," says Dr. Holland. "This pandemic is an extremely unusual and stressful time for all of us."
Too much screen time can have a negative effect on kids, but screens are easy to turn to for multitasking parents. Experts at Children's Health share ways to find balance.
For more resources on helping children understand COVID‑19 and keeping your family healthy, visit the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.