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Finding the right screen time for kids in coronavirus pandemic times

Many trade parenting ideas online as screen time increases for children amid stay-home rules

I had a WhatsApp birthday party last month. My six-year-old nephew, who has been in lockdown with his family in Mumbai, wanted to "attend" my birthday event here. I put on a nice dress, cut a small cupcake, blew a candle, and we danced to music across screens while my parents (his grandparents) clapped from another screen, and another house in lockdown.

Such scenes have been playing out for many people with celebrations of late, but that was my first on a messaging platform, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope my nephew did too.

Before my birthday, he had already attended a Zoom birthday party for his school friend, and had video chats with another pal from the next block since they were not able to play together under the stay-home rules.

So, my virtual birthday celebration may not have been as novel an experience for him as it was for me. Now we have regular video calls, with a dance or storytelling session. He may not be playing online games or watching superhero movies on the tablet during these calls, but at the end of the day, they still count as screen time.

If parents were struggling with limiting tech and screen time for their children in the era before the coronavirus, the pandemic has definitely upended their intentions.

If it is not home-based learning that is keeping children in front of screens, it is the fact that some parents are also working from home and have less time to monitor their children's screen activities in the absence of daycare facilities or the grandparents' watchful eyes, and with activities outside the home a big no.

Some parents have been trading the guilt they are feeling online.

Twitter user Michael C. Russell @MikeRussellCIE was one of them. "We messed up this week. Gave the kids the tablets too often so we could get work done. Now both are acting out on purpose trying to get us to give up and let them have some screen time," he posted.

Twitter user Dad and Buried @DadandBuried did a before-and-after quarantine comparison in his tweet: "Kids Before Quarantine: - whine nonstop - get too much screen time - ask for snacks 500 times a day Kids During Quarantine: - whine nonstop PLUS INFINITY - get WAY TOO MUCH screen time - eat NOTHING BUT snacks."

They do sound very angsty. But for children, who now have the words quarantine, lockdown, coronavirus and pandemic effortlessly embedded in their everyday vocabulary, this is a confusing time of adjustment.

There are adults who have come up with some solutions.


Children learning from home via a computer in Kuwait City. All over the world, screen time has increased for students who have to stay at home
as schools close their premises to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Stacy A. Jacob @stacyajacob tweeted: "We have been FaceTiming with my nephew and niece who are 6 & 8 and baking simple things. They write down the recipes. We are also having a dance party with them on Saturday. Aunt & Uncle seem to bring some needed newness every once in a while."

Twitter user Vision Bunny @VisionBored1 had a unique activity for her children.

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"Today's home school art project is letting my kids draw pictures in the five inch layer of dust on the furniture," she said. Although there is no explanation in her tweet, it is totally understandable why she would have a five-inch layer of dust on the furniture. The lockdown has kept all help away and working mothers too busy.

Sabrina Rojas Weiss, a parenting writer for American lifestyle site Sheknows.com, and a mother of one, wrote in a blog: "All the celebrity moms I follow are talking about how wonderful it is to have this time to reconnect with their families and focus on what's important. (Thanks, Jennifer Lopez.)

"None of this resembles what's going on in my house on Day 4 of Social Distancing During the Time of Coronavirus. What am I doing wrong? Oh, wait, I know: I'm a working mom - one who doesn't make a J.Lo-level salary, that is."

Then there are those parents who have taken the whole situation with a whole lot of optimism and decided that the children will be all right even if their screen-time rules have gone out of the window.

Twitter user Alice Robinson @critrature seems to have had an epiphany that made her tweet: "You guys. PSA. Parenting is SO much easier when you don't fret over screen time! It's basically like being alone! It has only taken a global pandemic to show me that. And you know what? The kids are alright."

Indeed, the most common advice out there now asks parents to stop fretting about the time their children are spending with a device, as there will always be screen time with technology in every part of our lives.

Instead, it says parents should be concerned with how children are spending that screen time and ensure that what the children are consuming is not junk.

This could mean making more activities such as jigsaw puzzle solving, podcast listening, and video calls with extended family and friends accessible to them.

"Like food, not all screen time is bad, especially during a pandemic. We just need to limit junk, help kids make good choices, and monitor what they're watching," tweeted Molly Colvin, PhD ABPP @drmollycolvin, a developmental neuropsychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

 
 
 

Adults themselves have been reporting higher-than-average time spent in front of screens.

Twitter user Shiny Baje @XetraSherpa sounds incredulous in this tweet: "Tonight youtube made me pass a security test because there was 'a lot of activity recently' from my computer, the NERVE."

Some businesses have incorporated breaks to make adults get up from the couch. Media company Zee Entertainment Enterprises has a 20-second timeout on its content asking viewers to get up and wash their hands.

Facebook just introduced a quiet-mode setting which will tell you how much time you have left before your social media break ends.

Although it is too early to say this for sure, could the increasing amount of time children are spending poring over smartphones and tablets actually make them bored with these devices?

That moment may have arrived for Twitter user Bonni Stachowiak @bonni208. "We may have reached a new low (maybe)? Kids are bored with screen time and want to do something else," she posted. I can almost hear the disbelief in that tweet.

Here's to both parents and children finding a balance in these extraordinary times. That in itself would be an achievement to be proud of.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline 'Finding the right screen time for kids in pandemic times'. Subscribe