On a typical day, you might plop your toddler in front of a screen so you can take a shower, or you might grant your preschooler a chunk of iPad time while you make dinner. You might offer an extra Netflix show at the end of the day if they completed their chores, and you've probably set up some general guidelines for how much time they can spend on their devices.
"If this means a lot of tablet time and that annoying Paw Patrol song ringing through your house while you juggle conference calls, so be it."
But, this isn't a typical day. With offices and schools closing across the nation, many working parents are expected to clock in from their couches while keeping their children occupied. Whatever notions you had about screen time should be tossed aside for a survivalist strategy that simply gets everyone in your house through the day. "If that means a lot of tablet time and that annoying Paw Patrol theme song ringing through your house again and again while you juggle conference calls, so be it," said Lindsay Powers, the author of the forthcoming book You Can't F*ck Up Your Kids. We spoke with the mom of two about how to balance your preconceived concerns over screen time with your family's new reality.
What Parents Should Know About Pre-Existing Screen Time "Rules"
Powers noted that the stigma surrounding acceptable screen times has more to do with parental guilt than the research. "The fact that we're even questioning whether screen time is acceptable shows how loaded the topic has become," she told POPSUGAR. She even got Dr. Jenny Radesky, who cowrote the American Academy of Pediatrics' screen time guidelines, to admit to her reliance on them. The pediatrician's own children watch YouTube.
"Parents afraid of letting their kids watch a little screen time is bananas," Radesky joked in the book. "I have an eight-year-old who's obsessed with soccer. He watches videos like, 'the top 10 goals of all time.' It's not problematic if it's like, 'Hey, I have a phone call. Can you watch some YouTube for 30 minutes and then we'll go outside and do something?"
Even Vassar neuroscientist Abigail Baird cautioned parents' perception that screens are the enemy. "It's important to remember that screens are a tool," she once told the brain science nonprofit Dana Foundation. "Think of a hammer. Yes, you could murder someone with a hammer, but most people don't. They use it to build and create and fix. There isn't enough good science to tell us when, or even if, technology as a tool is going to be a problem yet."
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The same philosophy can be applied to fears that children will become addicted to screens – a risk that, while serious, isn't all that common, according to Powers.
In the end, the key hope with the AAP's guidelines is not to scare parents away from screens, but to encourage them to find the right fit for their needs. Powers noted that the AAP recommendations focus on the content our kids are consuming – ideally age-appropriate, somewhat-educational shows – and how long they're watching. But a child exists within a family context, and she said "the rules can be thrown out the window temporarily when a family's situation has changed."
What Parents Should Consider as They Add on Screen Time
Although the circumstances are certainly different with many families under self-quarantine and mandatory isolation, Powers said that parents confused on how to adjust their kids' quantity of screen time can first consider applying the same allotment as they do when they're traveling - think of how you'd handle a long flight - or when you've got a sick kiddo.
You can certainly set your kid up with a lengthy Netflix queue, but it helps to check in every once in awhile, especially because of how videos autoplay after another ends.
"Parents afraid of letting their kids watch a little screen time is bananas."
"When my older son was 3, he once requested videos of 'muddy jeeps,'" Powers told POPSUGAR. "My husband found a bunch on YouTube and then, feeling satisfied with fulfilling our son's random request so well, jumped into the shower. When he emerged from the bathroom 15 minutes later, our son was watching videos of naked women playing mud volleyball thanks to YouTube's wacky algorithm."
Powers advised that, a couple of times a day, have conversations with your kids about what they're watching. And although it might be tempting to give them hours at a time, Powers suggested parents break up screen time with other activities like coloring or playing with toys.
But again, if a major binge session happens, don't beat yourself up. Powers interviewed Carline Knorr from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps families navigate technology and entertainment, who said that it's more practical to strive for an overall weekly - not daily - balance. "If your three-year-old . . . watches three hours of Daniel Tiger one day, just make sure the next day is less screen intensive," Knorr said.
What Parents Should Do When Things Return to Normal
Powers told POPSUGAR that a common concern among parents fearful of loosening the reins on their screen schedules even the slightest is because it'll be impossible to push it back later. Just like you would if you allowed your kids extra screen time while home for the holidays or on a road trip, whenever you resume your regular routine, simply resume your regular screen rules as well.
"That is exactly what we'll do when school, and normal life, resumes," Powers said. "We're going to dial it back."
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She suggested a simple script parents can use: "Hey, we watched a lot of TV and played with our tablets a lot when a lot of people were sick. But now, so many people are feeling better, so we're going to return to playing outside rather than just watching TV."
But, again, Powers implored that parents cross that bridge when we get to it. For many in quarantine, it will be weeks before anything changes. Her advice: "Let's stop beating ourselves up about screens in the meantime."