During the lockdown we’re experiencing due to Covid-19 – when parents work from home while children are at home as well – it can be all too tempting to allow children to spend an increasing amount of time on mobile devices, using the computer or watching television. This means that managing family screen time is more challenging than ever.
Together with the child psychologist PhD. Jarmila Tomková, we looked at several risk factors of extensive digital use by children that naturally occur when a whole family is quarantined, followed by five practical tips on what you as a parent can do about it.
Stress and anxiety of children
It’s often difficult to reflect on the sources of stress and anxiety, even for adults. If not handled well, feelings of tension can become nervousness, irritability, aggression or depression. These feelings can be connected with behavioural and physiological problems such as insomnia, headache, appetite change or addictions. It’s much more difficult for children to understand and cope with their emotions. Unconsciously, they absorb the anxieties of their parents and the family atmosphere, and react sensitively to the ‘stress in the air’.
As a result, children try to manage their anxieties by strategies such as fighting with siblings and screaming more than usual, or needing more attention. Teenagers seek their peer community online more intensely, especially where they can have the opportunity to portray themselves as being competent. For small children it’s mainly the stories, fantasy, role playing, fun and escapism from insecure reality that plays the key role. That's why video games and digital stimuli are more attractive to kids in hard times.
How to keep children quiet
The most common answer of parents to the question ‘What’s difficult while working at home during the social distancing period?’ is:
“I’m being constantly interrupted by my children during work time, so I can’t focus on work and deliver.”
We all know the secret key to keeping children quiet and entertained – digital stimuli. William (who has two kids) says:
“The only distraction that seems to work on my child during the day is a screen. But how much screen time is too much?”
Online schooling and online socializing
When kids are educated in schools, they interact with digital stimuli in their free-time and breaks. These days, screen time is extended by online schooling.
For kids and teenagers, the peer group and feeling of belonging is an essential point of healthy development and one of most important sources of self-esteem. Not being able to meet friends (and relatives) personally during quarantine enforces the need to meet them online. That’s an additional regular time slot of screen time that’s necessary in the daily routine.
Five tips to manage screen time
Many of a child’s requirements can only be accomplished via the internet and digital devices now. That means adults must revisit their attitude toward screen time, and be proactive as reliable managers.
1. Stay calm, they aren’t addicted It’s proven that if children have rich personal resources, enough interactions and fulfilling contact with their families, screen time doesn’t correlate significantly with online addiction. Instead of panicking about screen time, talk about life, talk about what they do online and set realistic limits.
2. Help children to cope with anxiety Children find it difficult to voice their feelings. For this reason, adults should help them to communicate. This can include talking about their feelings as well as the experiences of kids in other families. For small kids, it can help to tell stories of animals coping with challenges. Don’t forget to carry storylines to a happy ending. Take the time to describe what steps were taken and what lessons were learnt.
It’s important that your children understand that with the appropriate action, they can remain safe. To help you, we’ve prepared an animated video that highlights what can be done to protect themselves from Covid-19 as well as online viruses.
3. Revisit the rules and limits Understanding the necessity of kids being online doesn’t mean it’s OK for adults to give up being responsible managers. More than ever, remember that you need to revisit your daily routine and rules. Use technology, such as parental control apps, to spot any problems. For a safe online experience, keep track of what your kids do with their devices. For example, ESET Parental Control for Android allows you to limit their online and gaming time, helps you find out what they are up to, and can block websites with inappropriate content. Uniquely, it also gives a voice to kids – letting them ask for permission to play or browse longer on specific websites.
Barbara (who has two children): “What seems to help them is to have a properly structured day. Before lunch they have morning chores, then TV until 4pm and their time on the internet and mobile devices is limited to one hour between 7pm and 8pm. You benefit from this but it also sets a good example for your kids when you set rules for everybody in the family, including adults. Everyone, whether family or friends, now seems to want to socialize a lot over Skype. It is nice, but I definitely can’t do it during working hours! We therefore set a timeframe for it between 7pm-8pm.”
Write a set of rules down, name them – for example, ‘Our digital agreement’ – then print it out and hang it somewhere where everybody in the house can read it. It will help to promote team work and support positive values.
4. Ladder of opportunities and media literacy Having technical skills to use digital devices doesn’t automatically mean children know how to use them responsibly. Show your kids content that is meaningful, funny and stimulates creativity. While exploring that together, you can talk about specific risks and how it’s possible to use technology safely and responsibly. You can also help to ensure they’re familiar with the main media channels online and the type of information and content they deliver.
5. Keep the balance It’s important to take a step away from the screen, for both children and parents. Don’t forget that as a parent, you’re a team leader. Rather than focusing purely on restrictions, think of it as an opportunity to balance the needs of the whole family. It’s important to get away from screens every day and it will reward you to think of ways you can do this. Perhaps you could take the time to explore nature on a daily walk, or you could cook something together in the kitchen. Alternatively, taking part in exercise, crafts, dance or painting a mini-masterpiece can all be great non-technological ways to help break up the school or work day.
Remember, you’re a role model for your kids, so make sure you’re aware of the habits they could be absorbing from you. Bear in mind that the way you plan your life and the amount of screen time you have affects them directly.