New screen time guidelines during COVID-19?

By The Health News Team | July 15, 2020
Boy looking at mobile phone

The old rules of screen time went out the window for most households during the COVID-19 pandemic, when children transitioned to distance learning and social distancing. But how much screen time is too much, and how can parents strike a healthy balance?

Dr. Jennifer Tam, an optometrist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, answers five questions about the increased amount of screen time and balancing children’s physical and emotional health.

1. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that parents set limits on screen time for children. Is this still important?
The two hours of screen time a day guideline for kids was not developed with our current situation in mind and isn’t really relevant for most households right now. Most children and teens have less access to extracurricular and social activities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, parents across the country are working from home while caring for children.

2. What are some tips on how to find the balance of screen time while parents are working from home?
Find applications or programming that incorporate fun and educational benefits for your child.

Set up time boundaries and app limits for open play screen time so your child doesn’t get stuck to their screen for hours and hours. Recommended recreational screen time is no more than 30 to 45 minutes per session. Parents can decide how many sessions they would like to give their child in a day without sacrificing physical activity.

Take “digital recesses” to get plenty of breaks in to motivate your kids to stay active and moving — play in the backyard, get some fresh air, take a short bike ride or get a snack.

If your child wants to watch a movie or program, try to avoid handheld devices with smaller screens. Instead, encourage watching that program on a television for better visual hygiene — having the screen bigger and farther away helps develop better vision habits.

3. Why is it important for kids to get physical activity during this time?
Physical activity during childhood can help children avoid a sedentary lifestyle as an adult, which is associated with obesity, reduced cardiorespiratory skills, losing bone and muscle strength, and also mental health concerns, such as anxiety or depression. Kids need physical play from a vision aspect as well, so they can relax their focusing systems and actually improve vision.

Many medical studies have been recently published indicating that 40 minutes or more of outdoor play can greatly help reduce the risk of becoming nearsighted (myopic) — where close objects look clear, but distant objects appear blurry. This is a rising concern because distance learning and prolonged up-close tasks on the screen are becoming the new norm.

4. What is the best way to balance educational and recreational screen time?
Distance learning requires a lot of screen time allocated toward academics such as class meetings, homework and reading assignments. Try to make educational screen time the top priority before recreational screen time. If possible, keep academics and online learning on one specific device and keep the fun recreational apps and games on a different device so the two don’t intermingle and create unnecessary distractions. This will allow recreational screen time to be an earned, fun activity.

5. What about screen time for social reasons?
The social aspect of screen time is important because we are social beings by nature, and with social distancing between family and friends, we can easily feel socially isolated and lonely. Many video chat platforms, such as Zoom or FaceTime, can help bridge that physical distance with others and allow quality time with friends and family members for kids to continue to grow socially and emotionally.

“With a new normal, you just have to find the appropriate balance for your family’s needs to stay happy and healthy,” Dr. Tam says. “Being flexible and letting loose of the rigid rules in the house in regard to screen time might be what we need to do for now to keep parents a bit more grounded.”

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