It’s a pandemic. Still. And we’ve been faced with some big challenges as we’ve been here waiting to get to the other side of this new normal — back to our old normal. We all know our kids have experienced quite a big shift in day-to-day experiences as well, especially when it comes to screen time.

But with this new way of life, where the landscapes of our homes, workspaces and schools have merged along with all the virtual tools we use for entertainment and to accomplish our daily tasks, what is an okay limit on screen time? What are the effects of too much screen time? How can you help set healthy expectations and limits as a parent?

"It was a good push for us to implement these tools and use them more consistently,” said Laura Sokolofsky, Jefferson Elementary school counselor. “Overall, students have been very flexible, but we know technology for children of all ages may have been in their lives mostly as entertainment and fun. The switch we had with their three-days-a-week education may have been the tipping point for some.”

Sokolofsky provides support to the school’s students, staff and parents, which since the pandemic, has become more demanding both in terms of counseling and helping families be successful with this new mode of learning. To manage the larger scale of need, the staff created a system of teachers who could check-in with families regularly to understand any needs or concerns they may have. This has allowed Sokolofsy to connect with more students for their own counseling needs.

“The amount of online screen time completely changed for kids of all ages, not only for instruction and reading, but also for assignments,” she said. “Some were mentally overwhelmed by the technology itself, too.”

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Kelsey Hemberger, occupational therapist at Beyond Boundaries says that during the pandemic, many families have let screen time limits go out the window. “Kids now are often on screens more hours of the day than not,” she said. This means children are spending more time in sedentary activity and less time in creative, active play that Hemberger notes kids’ bodies need to thrive and develop. “Active and creative play engages all their senses and they need that to learn real-life skills, such as how to regulate emotions, behaviors and to give their nervous systems what they need to learn and develop,” Hemberger adds.

Having kids do non-screen activities engages their brains in a way that doesn’t involve a screen. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms
Having kids do non-screen activities engages their brains in a way that doesn’t involve a screen. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms

Kids experience a whole range of negative effects with too much screen time, including poor attention, frustration, impulsiveness, poor posture, decreased fine motor skills and a decreased ability to regulate sensory input. It can even affect sleep patterns.

“Screens are so engaging they trick your brain into thinking you are getting enough input throughout your day,” Hemberger said. “When a child is on a screen all day and then is supposed to transition to sleep, their body is not ready as it has not had a chance to move and get enough input in their body to transition to a calm and regulated state.”

But let’s be realistic: a lot of us have full-time jobs to do (now from home), on top of the other day-to-day tasks of keeping our homes from turning into shambles. We often just don’t have the energy. “It’s okay. We are in a pandemic and parenting during a pandemic is something none of us have had to do before,” Hemberger said. “We are all in the same boat and there are things we can work into our days to try to create some balance.”

Increasing activities that empower sensory and regulations so learning, behavior and mental well-being flourishes are a great place to start. Playing will help develop children’s brains while creative activities help grow their self-confidence, emotional well-being and coping strategies. Here are a few other tips:

  • Create a visual system of rewards and options to choose from for leisure-based activities.

  • Set up areas for your child to engage in non-screen activities such as crafts, Legos, obstacle courses, etc.

  • Set limits for screen time and update devices to time out after a certain amount of time.

  • Reward time for completed chores or good behavior.

  • Get up and move.

  • Find more activities to do as a family.

  • Vary the type of screen you are using. It’s okay to watch a workout or dance video to get your body moving!

  • Take frequent breaks to avoid long stretches of screen use.

  • Don’t let your child have a TV in their bedroom or develop a habit of falling asleep.

So how do you know when you need to shift gears and get some of these activities into your child’s day?

One of the biggest warning signs to look out for are meltdowns related to screen time limits or when screen time is up. If your child is only in a calm or regulated state when they’re on their screen or if they’re unable to occupy themselves without a screen those are red flags. Sneaking screen time when they’re not supposed to could be a warning sign as well.

Balance is more important than ever especially since these new ways to communicate and experience can be effective at helping us feel connected, pandemic or not.

“I believe many of these technologies will remain after the pandemic,” Sokolofsky said. “Communication has increased immensely with our families and it’s easier to share with parents what their children are doing in the classroom. Even streaming our sports and high school activities so those unable to attend can watch would be great to see continue.”

As parents, it’s important we know and understand what our kids are up against and, like everything else, help set the stage for their success. While this pandemic has thrown us many curve balls in that arena, we’re not alone in figuring these things out. Reach out to fellow parents and see what works for them or if you or or child is really struggling get help.

“Occupational therapists are trained in providing holistic strategies to families to support well-being, daily routines, developing healthy habits, and promoting development,” Hemberger said. “We work with families to implement a balanced routine, decrease addictions to screens, and promote overall health and wellness.”