With many families opting their child in for a distanced learning plan, and many extra curriculars cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic, trends show children are spending more time in front of screens than usual. A recent survey out of the University of Guelph asked parents to indicate how much time their child spends in front of a screen compared to pre-pandemic levels; not surprisingly, 89 per cent of respondents said their children were watching more screen than before the pandemic.
One of the researchers behind that survey is Jess Haines, an Associate Professor of Nutrition and co-director of the Guelph Family Health Study. In reviewing the results, Haines acknowledges that there’s a lot of challenges being presented to parents amid COVID-19, especially with many moving to a work from home format. While some parents may feel guilty as they opt for a quick moment of silence with the “digital babysitter”, Haines said that screens can be beneficial in keeping kids safe and in one place when they need to be.
“Our advice is to be thoughtful and strategic about the times you use it – try to look at your day and think about what are the times where you need your kids to be safe… out of your space…” said Haines. “… create a schedule so they have that time (…) and you can get your things done…”
In scheduling a regular routine for acceptable screen time, Haines said the benefits are two-fold. She said that children watch less when they have an established screen schedule opposed to families who don’t have that routine. In addition, she said there’s also a benefit for parents – in that when children know when their screen time starts and ends, you can reduce the amount of fighting and arguing that happens around screen time.
“If you know these are your two hours… when you come and say, ‘now it’s over’, often kids will get used to it and know ‘there’s no sense in arguing… this is what’s expected’.”
On the implications of too much screen time, Haines pointed to established research that shows the behaviour can be associated with language delays and learning challenges. Among teens, Haines said that too much use can interrupt other aspects of their life, which could lead to negative mental health outcomes like anxiety or depression.
Haines said that her research has shown a parent’s relationship with screens can directly influence a child’s engagement with devices as well, encouraging that parents “make a big deal” of putting aside screens to model what a healthy relationship with technology can look like. Both during meals and bedtimes, Haines said screens should be put aside, as usage in both situations can have their own consequences.
“The other thing it interrupts is your opportunity to check in with your children – see how they’re doing that day, etc,” said Haines. “Make sure that meals are a screen free time… and that will allow you to connect with your kid and hopefully reduce the amount of screen.”
Haines said that screens in the bedroom are detrimental to both children and adults, as a nearby device can interrupt quality and quantity of sleep. Haines also cautions parents against using screen time as a reward for good behaviour, as studies have shown that families who use this strategy tend to have more screen time. Haines said incentivizing the use of technology only increases its value in the eyes of children, leading to them craving it more.
Lastly, Haines said there is an important distinction to be made between high quality and low-quality screen time, adding that not all time in front of a screen is detrimental. Some children or teens may use their devices to connect socially, or for educational purposes.
“When we think about limiting our children’s’ screen time… quality can be a piece of that,” said Haines. “We’re going to reduce how much time they spend on games, (…) videos on YouTube because those don’t have the benefits that we have seen when people are on screen for learning or social connection.”
“We need to acknowledge that, in addition to some of these adverse consequences associated with screen time, there’s also some benefits,” said Haines. “Our job as parents is to help navigate our children through the screen environment so that they’re balancing their screen time with those other things that we want to do to support health.”