Screen Time Spike? Don’t Panic!

during quarantine – and afterward – parents should help kids navigate the digital world

Justin Patchin |

The spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of anxieties for parents trying to balance work and family responsibilities amid ever-changing uncertainties. In this unprecedented time of hunkering down and holing up, parents are relying more than ever on technology to help carry the educational and recreational load. All across the world, school buildings have been shuttered and unnecessary travel has been prohibited. As a result, the family home has become the school, the gym, the playground, and the office.

To carry on with instructional activities remotely, teachers are using a variety of online platforms to connect with their students. My wife and I receive multiple emails each school day from our son’s teachers with activities, videos, and general check-ins. Google Classroom assignments and Webex get-togethers are the new educational norm. While the debate about the benefits and risks of technology for education have ebbed and flowed over the last two decades, there is little doubt that screens are saving schools right now.

Parents, too, are relying on technology more than ever to get through the day. Many now work from home and need a way to distract their children so they can get through those emails or that important Zoom meeting. Last week I spent about 5 hours of one day in various virtual meetings! It was great to be able to continue collaborating with others without risking my health (or theirs). And now that many parents have become part-time teaching assistants, homeschooling responsibilities are more bearable when you can Google “Common Core Math,” or better yet, just send a quick message to your kid’s actual math teacher for real-time explanation.

Despite understandable concerns by parents, there isn’t any solid evidence anywhere that screen time in and of itself is detrimental to kids. 

In many ways, screens have allowed us to stay close to others, without having to violate six-foot separation regulations. Convening in virtual happy hours, FaceTiming loved-ones, or creating and sharing funny TikTok videos can help pass the time in this era of physical – though not social – isolation. I can’t be with my friends, but I can keep up with how they are managing via various social media accounts. I must be doing a good job of keeping connected because last week I was notified by my iPhone that my screen time had increased 103% from the week before. And between his schoolwork, Mario Kart, Messenger Kids, and YouTube videos about frogs, my kid has stared at a screen for more hours this past week than in the previous month altogether. The point is that both adults and kids are spending a lot of time in front of screens these days.

Don’t panic or feel guilty.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Despite understandable concerns by parents, there isn’t any solid evidence anywhere that screen time in and of itself is detrimental to kids. Yes, hours of inactivity is not good. And yes, if screen time interrupts sleep time, that could be a problem. It is also certainly possible that online misbehaviors will increase with more time online. Absent anything else, yes, there could be more problems when more kids are online for extended periods, just like there is more bullying at school during the academic term than during summer because the kids are together. But all of this ignores other possible factors, such as the nature of the online activity and adult supervision/mentorship. Just like some schools are better than others when it comes to preventing bullying, some online environments and familial circumstances are better than others when it comes to preventing cyberbullying and other online problems.

So how can you help your child navigate the next few months of increased screen time?

  • Spend time online with your kids. Explore what games they are playing, what sites they are visiting, and what videos they are watching. Find out who they are interacting with and remind them of basic internet safety principles (e.g., being careful when chatting with people they don’t know well, not sharing personal and identifiable information, not “taking the bait” when others are trying to troll them).
  • Ask your child if they would know what to do if someone was treating them or someone else badly online. Make sure they know how to report, block, and mute bad actors on all of the apps and sites they are using.
  • Use age-appropriate parental controls to help minimize the chance they will unintentionally encounter inappropriate content. Most important of all, ensure they know that you are always available to help them with whatever issues they confront online.
  • Encourage physical activity. Sitting still all day long isn’t good for anyone – and especially not for energetic children. Even though many schools have restricted or altogether removed physical education, your homeschool doesn’t have to. Get your kids moving – inside or outside – for at least 60 minutes each day (and preferably more). There are many ideas online for kids of all ages.
  • Make sure they are getting enough sleep. This may mean enforcing limits to screens after a certain time at night.

Almost everyone will be spending more time online in the coming months, kids included. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Not all screen time is created equal, and as parents we need to balance the entertainment with the informational. Interactive educational activities can be a wonderful way for your child to continue learning. But a reasonable amount of time doing something fun on their devices isn’t going to hurt them (and may help you get other work and household responsibilities completed).

After watching a bunch of frog videos the other day, my son spent the next four hours outside – looking for frogs. It’s a little too early for them to be out here in the Chippewa Valley, but that didn’t stop him from exploring the far reaches of our yard. And he slept like a rock that night. As Mr. Miyagi said in Karate Kid, “Balance is key.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish that last episode of Tiger King.

Dr. Justin Patchin is a professor of criminal justice in the Department of Political Science at UW-Eau Claire. He is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.