Balancing Screen Time During COVID-19

Asian girl working on computer with alarm clock in foreground

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, work and learn. Most children are attending school remotely full- or part-time, and can’t participate in their usual sports and extracurricular activities—limiting the valuable benefits of socializing with their peers. As a result, many parents worry about how much time their children are spending on screens.

While pediatricians ordinarily recommend age-based screen time limits aligned with guidelines from the American Medical Association, this is an exceptional and overwhelming time. Children using screens more than usual right now is not the end of the world. The key is to balance screen time between school, socializing with friends and playing games.  

Age-based guidelines

Tantrums, crying or screaming are common among children when unregulated screen time is stopped. If you give in, it will only increase each time. Set screen time limits and stick to them. The first few days these behaviors may worsen. But that simply shows your child is testing the limits you set—and they’re working. Consistent limit setting is always effective. 

Here are some tips to help prevent these outbursts while achieving a reasonable screen time balance:

  • Kids under three: should be playing with toys, as online learning games don’t provide any advantage. Children shouldn’t meet each other for the first time in an online play group because it doesn’t seem real. Stick to online greetings with familiar family members.
  • Ages three to five: should focus more on toys. It’s best to play online learning games with these children, but independent use is okay up to 30 minutes. Scheduling a couple screen time sessions daily provides predictability and eliminates conflict.
  • School-aged kids: are doing school work on screens all day, so assign daily categories of screen time–required, play and social. Enforce a break after school and have suggestions ready for other activities, like arts and crafts, Legos or puzzles. Screen time can follow with an online game or virtual playdate with a friend from an extracurricular activity that they can’t participate in. Treat it as the activity’s replacement and set a time limit.
  • Adolescents: are the hardest to manage because peer relationships are critical. Teenagers want to play video games and use apps to communicate with friends, so find out what they’re doing online in order to keep them safe. Have them teach you how to play their favorite game and talk about it over dinner. Ask questions like, “What app are you using to talk to friends? Who are you talking to? How many people are in your group? What information are you giving to people you don’t know?”

Take a deep breath

If your child is getting school work done, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, sitting with family members for meals, eating a healthy diet and getting exercise, you can rest assured that screens are not a problem. But if your child is playing video games for hours at night and losing sleep, or not keeping in touch with friends, you should intervene. It’s important to enforce screen time rules, check in regularly to assess mood (look for signs of anxiety or isolation) and ask your pediatrician for tips or for a therapist referral.

Remember to give yourself some slack while navigating the daily impacts of this global crisis.

Nina Sand-Loud, MD, is a developmental behavioral pediatrician for Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.