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Pandemic Screen Time for Kids — How Much is Too Much?

by | Feb 3, 2021 | Kids and Technology, Parenting Tips

How do you define screen time for kids? Is it any time they’re focusing attention on their device? Or does it refer to something more specific, like when they’ve been scrolling TikTok for two hours and have tuned out the entire world? Do you count school and Zoom classes? What about reading on their Kindle before bed?

These questions show just how complicated the concept of screen time is right now for families. Many parents are super concerned (and rightfully so!) about how much time their kids are spending online. They’re also worried what it could be doing to their child’s emotional and physical well-being. 

But on the flip side, screens are also doing a lot of heavy lifting. We rely on them for nearly every activity in our lives, and kids right now are no exception. This post is meant to provide a little perspective on the issue of screen time. It all boils down to the fact that healthy screen time use looks different for every child, and there is no definitive number to stick to. We know parents all across the country are struggling, balancing parenting with working from home along with countless other stresses. It’s our hope that you’ll feel a little bit better about your kid’s relationship with screen time when you’re done reading. 

Screen Time for Kids — Putting It in Perspective

Worrying about your children’s tech use is entirely natural right now. But a recent New York Times article has been creating a lot of fear and panic for many families (not to mention guilt) about the dangers of increased screen time during the pandemic. Don’t completely yank the iPad away and tighten up the household screen time regimen even more, though. We’ve got a few ways for you to think about the question of screen time with a little bit of perspective. 

A Brief History of Technology, Kids, and Boredom

The constant battle against boredom is as old as childhood itself, and we can imagine exhausted parents saying “Go play outside!” as far back as ancient Rome. With the advent of the modern era, technology has continually brought new entertainment into our homes and lives.  And for each successive generation, fears about new technology have always accompanied the new devices. Did you know that in 1931, parents feared that radio (a state-of-the-art invention at the time) would interfere with children’s interest in “conversation, music practice, group games and reading”? Today, radio is one of the most passive of all technologies, something you listen to while driving to the grocery store.

The same fears persisted throughout the decades — next came TV, then personal computers, video games, and now phones and tablets. Fears over kids succumbing to the hypnotic lure of that era’s technology remained very real. But every generation since the 1930s has managed to adapt to using new technology, and so has society as a whole. Should kids get unlimited access to screen time? Definitely not, but taking advantage of technology to engage them in an unprecedented time of domestic upheaval probably isn’t the worst idea, either.

Let’s be honest: boredom for kids during a pandemic is real. Very real. Sleepovers, school days, birthday parties, trips to the zoo, vacations, weekend plans — these all have been stripped away from children or look very different today. There are only so many five-minute crafts and scavenger hunts that your family can do in one year. Being able to play video games and watch nearly any TV show or movie ever created is a real blessing in a time when it’s not always safe to leave your house.

Look Behind Your Child’s Screen Time

Being concerned about too much screen time isn’t usually just about the technology. It often can mean a parent is worried about bigger issues like:

  • Lack of physical activity the child may be getting
  • Eye strain
  • Irritability/crankiness when interrupted 
  • Less face-to-face interaction with other people
  • Disengagement with family members and responsibilities

These are all valid reasons to worry, and why it’s super important to have open, honest, and regular conversations with your child, especially if you notice a pattern of behavior developing. While screen time may not necessarily be the sole cause of all these concerns, it can definitely exist alongside them, as well as make them worse. If you’re seriously concerned about your child’s mood or behavior, we recommend talking to a school counselor, your family doctor, or a mental health professional. 

Recognize When It’s a Coping Mechanism

There’s a difference between a child playing their fifth game of Fortnite in a row on a Saturday afternoon and a kid scrolling through TikTok at 2 a.m. on a Monday because they’re super anxious and can’t sleep. As a parent, you can probably tell when your child is using the internet as a coping mechanism — most likely because you can relate (looking at you, Instagram and Twitter). There’s a real fear for many families that their kids will become addicted to screens as their sole source of pleasure since not much else is going on — especially now that it’s winter and outdoor socialization is harder to arrange. Fortunately, there are ways to help reinforce healthy tech use.

The Importance of Boundaries

If you’re afraid your child is depending too heavily on their screens for happiness, we feel you. To prevent them from scrolling all night long, you can use a few different tools to help manage their time. First, consider a no-phones-in-the-bedroom-at-night rule, and instead charge all your family’s devices in a communal place like the kitchen. You can also sit down and draft a tech contract with your kids, laying down ground rules and expectations for device use. Finally, if you’re still struggling with screen time arguments, you can manage the amount of time your kid can access the internet on their phone with Bark. Parents can set designated times for school, play, and sleep, plus you can customize what they can and can’t access in these blocks of time. 

All Screen Time is Not Created Equal

The flip side of being constantly worried about the effects of technology is recognizing that it provides us with a link to the world that’s utterly irreplaceable. Can you imagine living through COVID-19 in 1995? No Netflix, no Zoom calls, no online grocery delivery.  And for kids — no YouTube, no multiplayer video games with friends across the city (or world!), no Disney+ (just those squishy vinyl Disney VHS tapes).

Connection

Kids are incredibly resilient, and the transition from in-person interaction to online hanging out wasn’t nearly as jarring as it was for some adults. For kids, at the end of the day, the important thing is being able to see your cousin’s face on a Zoom call or hear your best friend’s voice while playing video games together.

My daughter has “tea” with my mom every week in French. (My mom is a retired French professor.) They use Zoom to chat and then she shares it on TikTok so others can learn French, too. 

—  Katey, Bark employee and mom of 2

Learning

Can you imagine a pandemic without online learning? For all of the challenges with it (and there are so, so many), the alternatives would be even more challenging. It’d probably be just piles of worksheets and the hope that your kid doesn’t ever have any questions.  

My oldest is in tech theater in high school. His school has some really big productions. He is currently using a lighting app on his iPhone to control the LED lights for the entire stage, and it’s amazing! — Jodie, Bark employee and mom of 2

Artistic pursuits

There are so many apps and websites that provide kids with a way to write, draw, color, and more — whether they’re busting out the colored pencils at their desk or using an iPad to create awesome digital sketches. 

“My son has found so many craft and drawing tutorials. His drawing skills and craft skills have really improved. I also love that he’s learned how to search YouTube for tutorials instead of just scrolling for entertaining videos to watch. — Rick, Bark employee and dad of 2

Exercise

Being cooped up in the house during a pandemic in the middle of winter means it’s not as easy for kids to expend some of that youthful energy. Fortunately, there are tons of websites, apps, and videos that encourage you to move your body!

“My younger son uses technology to stay in shape. Various apps and YouTube videos give him ideas and help him stay motivated. Then he Zooms with a few friends so that they can work out together and he’s made some pretty cute fitness videos. He’s 12, and they are hysterical!”  — Leslie, Bark employee and mom of 3

Creation

From making TikTok videos and starting podcasts to curating YouTube and Twitch channels, many kids are using the internet to help them express themselves.

“The pandemic forced my son to become a better producer of music and not just a songwriter and rapper. He bought some online music theory courses and watched YouTube videos to learn how to play the keyboard and mix music. He released a five-song EP and a stand-alone single seven months after the pandemic started, and it was all because he had the time to learn through technology.” —  Matt, Bark employee and dad of 2

Try and Be Gentle With Yourself

Parenting during a pandemic is courageous, and you’re doing the best you can with what you have right now. Strangers on the internet may disagree about the proper amount of screen time for kids, but you know your children best. Keep an eye on them and try to accentuate the positive when you can. One day, you’ll look back at the idea of a Zoom birthday party and probably have a good laugh with your kids. But right now, screen time — and activities like this — are a part of your family’s life and are helping to keep you connected, and that’s a good thing.

About Bark

Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.

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